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Air station housing shortage, other issues to be studied

FORT WORTH -- The Naval Air Station Fort Worth commander, Capt. T.D. Smyers, has worried since he took command of the installation about the distance many servicemen and women have to travel to work every day.

With fewer than 100 family housing units on base and comparatively few housing options nearby, thousands of uniformed military personnel and civilians live in Saginaw, Aledo, Arlington, Denton and farther, increasing the chance of wrecks and tardiness and contributing to the congestion in and around the west-side base every morning and evening.

"We're like a commuter college," Smyers said. "All of those factors degrade our mission readiness. Having war fighters driving 30 or 45 miles a day is not an attractive aspect of our business model."

Smyers and civic leaders who work closely with the base hope that a federal grant awarded to the North Central Texas Council of Governments will provide opportunities to address housing, zoning and transportation issues facing the base and the cities surrounding it.

"The Regional Coordination Committee was created for the six municipalities to dream, and now we've got some money behind it to formalize these ideas," said Paul Paine, chairman of the committee and a retired commander of the base. "Collectively, we've never had this level of cooperation."

Studying the problems

The council of governments will administer the three-year $640,000 grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department, which was jointly sought by members of the Regional Coordination Committee. The committee has high-level representatives from the base, Fort Worth, White Settlement, Westworth Village, Lake Worth, Benbrook, River Oaks and Tarrant County.

The council of governments expects to sign a contract with HUD in the coming weeks to begin work on multiple studies, said Tamara Cook, a senior transportation planner.

The grant will fund studies and work in four areas -- transportation, housing and retail, updating comprehensive development plans and establishing similar building codes among the cities that will mitigate aircraft noise.

None have quite as much potential, though, as looking at potential solutions to the housing shortage near the base. More than three-quarters of the base's housing was given to Westworth Village after Carswell Air Force Base closed in 1993 and was redeveloped into a thriving retail corridor and luxury neighborhood.

As a result, Smyers said, he has only 83 family housing units, and the Navy has no plans to build more. Single servicemen and women live in barracks, and reservists typically live in their own housing locally. But the base has a significant active-duty population of families that move in and out of the area every few years.

"The demand far outstrips the supply I've got," Smyers said.

Opportunities

Smyers said he would like to find private developers to build a mix of single-family houses and townhouses near the base, and he would be sure to fill them with sailors, airmen, Marines and soldiers who choose to rent.

"What we're not doing anymore in the housing business represents an opportunity for private enterprise," he said. "What we're hoping from a comprehensive study is that it will inform our dialogue on development and ensure that the direction we take is the right direction."

The council of governments will also continue looking into the traffic situation around the base, including the possibilities of adding bicycle lanes and better synchronizing lights on Texas 183.

"We need to be looking at 'What are the other things besides driving your car that are possible?'" Cook said.

For example, the base is talking with officials from the Fort Worth Transportation Authority because no bus lines stop near the installation, and Smyers would like to make sure the base isn't overlooked when light rail is talked about regionally.

It is also important, Smyers and Paine said, that housing and retail be developed outside the base's noise contours and accident zones, a point that has driven much of the development discussion among the cities for the last four years.

"We need to figure out where the opportunities are for possible residential growth that is in harmony with the base," Paine said. "I don't want to see a residential development that creates a traffic congestion problem, for example.

"I don't think any of us knows where this is going to lead, but there is great potential."

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

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