WHEATFIELD – The next challenge to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station can be seen along the flight path.
The prospect of new subdivisions or other developments sprouting up on farmland around the air base worries local officials.
They weathered different missions at the base and Pentagon budget cuts before, so now officials want to get in front of any threats should the Air Force put Niagara Falls on a shutdown list like it did in 1995 and 2005. Both times local officials and residents persuaded the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, not to close it.
Now, officials want an appraisal to find out how much it would cost to buy development rights on farmland around the base. Holding the development rights would quell any fears the Air Force might have about future development encroaching on the base.
"When we go to the Pentagon, one of the first questions they ask us is if there are any encroachment issues," said John A. Cooper Sr., president of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, a citizens group of air base advocates. "Even housing developments where aircraft are flying over them (could be considered encroachment)."
Niagara County, the Town of Wheatfield, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and the Niagara Military Affairs Council have hired GAR Associates for $30,000 to study how much the development rights might cost.
"Once we find out that information, we can eventually apply for a grant from the state to purchase these rights," Cooper said.
"This whole initiative is to ensure that there is no encroachment as far as development is concerned," added County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, whose district includes some of the affected area. "We understand a BRAC could come as early as this year, and any encroachment would be a red flag for Niagara."
"The study will address the important issue of future development to land contiguous to the runway protection zone at the airport and military base with respect to aviation compatibility," said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. "It will prevent a scenario of having a not so well-suited neighbor adjacent to the airport and military base. In addition, this investment will help support the longevity of the 914th by preventing encroachment issues from arising that could be construed as having a negative impact on the long-term future of the base – something no one wants to see happen."
There are nearly 3,000 full- and part-time civilian and uniformed personnel at the base, making it Niagara County's largest employer.
Where to buy
"We are in the very early stages of this," Wheatfield Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said. "We are nowhere near talking to farmers about specific contracts. I would think development rights would be a lot less expensive then actually purchasing property. The town has no use for it."
The target area for the study is bounded by Niagara Road, which is the "main drag" in Bergholz, and by Walmore, Lockport and Ward roads, Cliffe said.
"It's a substantial amount," Cliffe said. "You don't want to change the zoning to take away the farmers' right to use the land without paying for it."
Frank Zuccari, who owns close to 500 acres of open land in Wheatfield, said most of his land is in the base's flight path. Because of that, he already follows restrictions on how he can use his property.
"We can't put up any of these new solar panels because of the glare," Zuccari said.
He's also not allowed to do any large-scale digging, because excavated land tends to lure seagulls and other birds.
"We can't dig a pond, sell the clay around here, because the birds would be in the flight path of the planes," Zuccari said. "We were approached. A guy said this would be perfect dirt for landfills, but they said no, the airport's there, the birds would get into the planes, which you can understand."
His family was paid $5,000 an acre 12 years ago for land that became a residential subdivision on Ward Road.
When it comes to selling development rights, "I would be interested to hear what they say," Zuccari said. "You never turn a proposal down. If you don't want it, fine, but you always listen."
So would lifelong Bergholz farmer Michael Devantier, but he warned, "It wouldn't be cheap, let's put it that way."
He said farmers count on the value of their land, especially if there is no next generation waiting to take over the farm, as in his case.
"For the farmers here, the land is their retirement money," Devantier said.
"The town put more restrictions on. It's harder to get a development through now than it used to be," Devantier said.
He's never sold land for a subdivision.
"We've been approached many times, but I said no. We're not selling until we're going out of business," Devantier said.
No air base position
Officials at the base are not taking a public position on the development rights idea.
"As far as anything to do with encroachment, we know there are advocates for us, but we stay in our lane, and our lane is to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars and concentrate on our mission," said Sgt. Kevin L. Nichols of the public affairs office.
The county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years on lobbying firms to promote additional construction and new missions for the two units stationed at the base.
The 914th Airlift Wing will be renamed the 914th Air Refueling Wing after it completes the replacement of C-130 cargo planes with KC-135 tanker aircraft later this spring.
Meanwhile, the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard has been chosen as a control center for military drones. The control facility is under construction and is expected to be finished by June. The drones will not be housed at the base, although Cooper said he'd like to see that happen in the future.