Congressional compromise allows no-cost property transfers at Brunswick base

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BRUNSWICK — The state’s congressional delegation has managed to strike a language compromise in the Defense Authorization bill that the redevelopers of Brunswick Naval Air Station say will speed property transfers at the base and soften the region’s recovery from its shutdown.

The provision encourages the U.S. Navy’s use of no-cost economic development property conveyances in addition to fair-market value sales.

While both transfer options exist now, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority viewed the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure statute as favoring fair-market language, which it said was a potentially costly impediment to the base’s transition to civilian use.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, last winter co-sponsored a bill that would favor the no-cost transfers. Snowe’s bill was followed by a similar House bill by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. Pingree’s bill required the no-cost transfers. Both passed their respective houses this summer, although Snowe’s provision wasn’t as strict.

But the inclusion of the provision was in doubt while the two bills were being reconciled in conference committee, mainly because it was not supported by the Obama Administration, which said a reliance on no-cost transfers would hamper the Department of Defense’s ability to fund environmental clean-ups at decommissioned bases . 

But on Oct. 7, the delegation claimed its efforts were successful when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a conferee negotiating the final legislation, managed to strike a compromise. It would allow the transfer of base property at or below fair-market value, depending on the economic conditions at of the affected community and the cost to redevelop the property. The Navy will still have the option of no-cost transfers.

According to Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch, the House was expected to pass the bill Oct. 8, followed by the Senate on Oct. 9. Despite Obama’s previous opposition to the provision, Ritch said Pingree doesn’t believe the president will kill it because it was included in the massive Defense Authorization bill, legislation that includes funding for a multitude of DOD projects and expenses. 

Collins hailed the compromise. 

“These new provisions will provide the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority with additional tools to attract new businesses to the region and accelerate the redevelopment process,” the senator said in a press release. “This will result in increased job opportunities for our skilled and dedicated workers and help to mitigate the very serious economic challenges created by the base’s closure. I fought hard to obtain these provisions in my work with the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I am truly delighted with the outcome.”

Snowe said the language isn’t a “silver bullet,” but a victory nonetheless for base redevelopment.

“The language takes a solid step in the right direction by striking language that states that the Department of Defense ‘shall’ seek fair-market value when transferring excess military property,” Snowe said in a press release.

“This is a true victory for our base communities, and, if this bill is signed into law by the president, I urge the secretary of defense to keep these factors in mind during (property) negotiations,” she added.

Pingree, in a release sent last week, said that while the best-case scenario would have been for the DOD to be required to make no-cost transfers, she is hopeful the compromise will prompt serious consideration from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“This case isn’t closed yet,” Pingree said. “It’s important that we make sure that Defense Secretary Gates uses the authority this legislation gives him and transfers the former Brunswick Naval Air Station land quickly and in a way that is economically feasible for the community.”

Pingree, in a followup interview, said she was hopeful the provision would prompt the DOD to take a hard look at no-cost transfers, particularly in Brunswick, which she said, faced a steeper climb to economic recovery than some other base closures. Pingree said one such closure, Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco, became a flash-point for lawmakers’ opposition to the no-cost provision because developers with political ties there stood to gain premium property for free. 

“Brunswick is an easier case to make (for no-cost transfers) than California,” Pingree said.

“This is a very good step for us,” she added. “It maybe doesn’t get us everything we wanted, but it holds hope that we can make redevelopment at (BNAS) a little easier.”

Pingree’s release also quoted MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque. 

“This is an important development for us,” Levesque said. “Without it, it’s hard to imagine how we could come up with the tens of millions of dollars it would take to purchase land at the base.” 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or