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Feb 01, 2017

Concerned Residents Attend Naval Weapons Station Earle Civilian Housing Brief

By Nicholas Deckmejian

On January 17, the auditorium at Colts Neck High School was filled with concerned members of the community, along with an atmosphere saturated in déjà vu and frustration. Everyone was gathered to listen to community leaders and dignitaries address Naval Weapons Station Earle, and a problem that had risen from the past. Plans for potential civilian housing on the naval station are yet again being met with intense disapproval and a familiar sense of concern, having fought through a similar battle a decade ago. Colts Neck Mayor Russell Macnow welcomed the public and recognized the congregation of local community leaders in attendance, including Senator Jennifer Beck, Freeholder Lillian Burry, Tinton Falls Mayor Gerald Turning, Tinton Falls Council President Gary Baldwin, Colts Neck Deputy Mayor JP Bartolomeo, Committeemen Eastman and Orgo, and Colts Neck Board of Education President Dr. Kimberly Raymond, along with board members Heather Tormey and Danielle Alpaugh. All of them were united in opposition of civilian housing at NWS Earle.

Senator Jennifer Beck helped frame the evening’s conversation, saying that in September, it was learned that NWS Earle had intentions to allow civilians to rent vacant housing on the base itself. In response, Senator Beck said that “the elected officials assembled here tonight have met with the commanding officer at the base on two occasions” and that after traveling to Washington, D.C. with Congressman Chris Smith and meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, they managed to stop efforts to rent housing until February 1, hoping retired or active military personnel could fill the available housing. She introduced Lieutenant Colonel James Sfayer, who led previous efforts to deter civilian housing, and put together a presentation that she considered “factual and data driven.”

The presentation given by Lt. Col. Sfayer provided a thorough explanation of the situation, providing context and a clear sense of the issue at hand. He explained that the Naval Station’s purpose is to provide ships ammunition and act as an inland storage area. He explained that back in 1996, Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, which allowed the Department of Defense to work with the private sector to manage on-base housing. The Public-Private Venture (PPV) had a set of standards, which they used to establish a hierarchy of preferred occupants. The order of “the waterfall” went: active duty families, unaccompanied military members, active duty national guard and reserve, military retirees, and, lastly, civil service retirees. In 1998, the PPV partner was given the authorization to lease housing to “unaffiliated civilians” if they are unable to fill the housing with those a part of the waterfall. In 2004, NWS Earle entered into a PPV agreement with Balfour Beatty National Housing, making them responsible for the maintenance of the homes, as well as recruiting tenants, with the goal of having 90% occupancy. Currently, their occupancy is around 70%, and while Balfour Beatty says they prefer military, they are allowed to open housing up to civilians after 30 days of vacancy. Senator Beck, Mayor Macnow, and local officials met with the commanding officer of Earle, Balfour Beatty, and the Navy.  Balfour Beatty dismissed security concerns and guaranteed that adding civilians wouldn’t bring any risk to the base or surrounding area, stating there will be thorough background checks for residents as well as any of their visitors, and that people come and go from the base every day without a problem.

Local representatives refused to believe that adding civilians to the base wouldn’t jeopardize security and asserted there will always be risk as long as non-military people have access to a major weapons depot. When analyzing the risks, concern is immediately raised due to the fact that the actual location of the housing is undesirable, causing suspicion that those interested could have malicious motivations. Any civilian living on base could potentially steal information on shipments and base activities, or connect through Wi-Fi and other cyber infrastructures to compromise security. Even if residents have good intentions, local officials still had pressing questions. Will residents be allowed to walk freely around the base? What happens when children living on base give in to curious or mischievous nature and wander around a naval base that stores highly explosive ammunition?  Furthermore, Tinton Falls Mayor Turning raised the question of how juveniles will be vetted, as either residents or visitors, considering the fact that background checks are supposed to be the first line of defense. “Well, here’s the answer,” he said. “They can’t. They’re juveniles, they won’t have access to their files; they’re secret, not even entered into the computer.  So, the first line of defense is already a failure, unless you think a 17-year-old kid can’t do damage in a military reservation.”

Civilians on base cannot be held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the base would ultimately need to enlist help of municipal police forces, creating the question of whether Colts Neck Police should be expected to enter a federal installation to arrest civilian residents. Civilian housing would also put a heavy burden on the school systems, and becomes a much more serious issue when considering the fact that the residences would not be paying any property taxes. Mayor Turning estimated that civilian housing could be a $1.2 million burden on their schools. “There’s no civilian living in that military reservation under this policy that would pay any taxes or fees to the borough of Tinton Falls, and you’re asking the borough of Tinton Falls to spend $1.2 million educating those children, who are civilians and not military, so Balfour Beatty can make $700,000.”

It was further explained that the 30 potential units available to civilians range between three- and four-bedroom models. Not only will these civilian residents not have to pay property tax, but they will be able to pay less rent than expected from active duty sailors and marines. There is also the question of whether the civilians, who are exempt from property taxes and pay less rent than active duty residents, will be allowed to use Navy facilities other than housing; facilities funded by taxpayer money. Local officials questioned why they should allow civilians to threaten security, take advantage of a seemingly unfair affordable housing situation, and put a burden on the budgets of public services such as schools and law enforcement while contributing nothing – only to help Balfour Beatty increase their profits.

The community has smart and passionate people representing them in this matter, and even after all their meetings with NWS Earle, the Navy, and Balfour Beatty, they still can’t understand how opening housing to civilians will result in anything other than problems. They collectively agreed that they don’t blame anybody at Earle for this, but rather the higher authorities and the private contract. But, after hearing all the arguments, looking at all the facts, and putting all their heads together, they still come to the same conclusion: none of this makes sense. Those in attendance were given the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the presentation. Members of the public voiced their concerns for the base’s security and the endangerment of the surrounding area, citing multiple examples of recent attacks by people without criminal records and how easy it would be for threats to take advantage of the vulnerability that civilian housing would create.  Senator Beck responded to the fear of potential attacks and validated them, saying, “All of us here in Monmouth County lived through 9/11, lost neighbors and friends, watched the twin towers burn. This is not a joke to us. This is real. We’ve been through it, and we’re very concerned about this proposal.”

The public also approached the conversation from a financial side, and was curious if there could be an alternative solution by simply paying for the potential revenue that housing would generate. Mayor Macnow said that they have considered this option, but the naval station is currently in year 12 of a 50-year contract, so having to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for 38 years would be unreasonable for towns the size of Colts Neck and Tinton Falls. “We think the navy made a bad deal with Balfour Beatty.  But it’s their bad deal, not our bad deal,” he stated, and emphasized the fact that they have invited the Navy to be the ones to put up the money and prevent the civilian housing from moving forward. “The Navy should step in, do what they need to do to make sure our security – your security – is cared for and buy out that obligation.”

At the end, the public was left with a simple question: what can we do? Senator Beck said that while she expects to travel again to Washington, D.C. and meet whoever will be the new Assistant Secretary of the Navy, “the community should be writing, emailing, communicating with him directly as well as the commanding officer at Earle and let them know you’re concerned.  We’re all in this together.” Freeholder Bury promised to support her community, saying, “I want you to be absolutely assured that the county is 100% behind the concerns you have and we’ll be there for you. Don’t let up; keep the pressure on.” If the situation continues to head towards an unfavorable conclusion, Mayor Macnow said that they are prepared to go to court and fight as long as necessary.