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More than 300 Stewart County residents filled the elementary school gym in Lumpkin, Ga., on the evening of July 26. They came for answers to their questions about Fort Bennings proposed training land expansion. Chief among those questions was the resounding theme of what it means to be a preferred alternative.
It means that we now are able to focus our assets our training folks, our environmental folks, our real estate folks to actually come down and look at this land, Deputy Garrison Commander George Steuber said during his opening statement at the town hall meeting, which lasted more than two hours. It does not mean this is a done deal.
According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement published in May, the land in western and central Stewart County, called Alternative 3, is one of five alternatives under consideration for the purchase of up to 82,800 acres of additional training land to meet the requirements of 21st-century maneuver training.
Since the expansion program started last year, officials have studied about 260,000 acres in proximity to the installation in Stewart, Marion, Webster, Harris and Talbot counties in Georgia, and Russell County in Alabama. There wasnt a difference in the land itself that jumped out at you, Steuber said, but cumulatively, with its large timber tracts, its sparse population and its willing sellers, Stewart County was hands down the preferred alternative.
But being the preferred alternative doesnt mean a land purchase is imminent. Steuber said it only means officials are now able to take a closer look.
Despite this assurance, some Stewart County residents remain skeptical.
Theres a lot of fear here; theres a lot of apprehension and a lot of mistrust, said Floyd Fort, Stewart County superintendant. People are looking at losing land they purchased for retirement, to help send their children to college land thats been in their family for generations. Thats a very emotional situation.
Several residents asked about the loss of approximately $900,000 in county tax revenue if an acquisition goes through when all is said and done.
Fort Benning does not have the authority or the capacity to reimburse counties for lost tax revenue, Steuber said, but payments in lieu of taxes could be obtained through the legislative process. The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Association of County Commissioners have agreed to assist in the PILT process for any county affected by a potential acquisition, he said.
Rick Thomas, a real estate specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that any displaced citizens would receive fair market value for their property and relocation assistance.
Each property will be looked at on an individual basis. The appraisal process will be very specific to the parcel tract, Thomas said.
Even though an appraisal process wouldnt start until after a record of decision has been published, residents are concerned now their property values are the lowest theyve been in 20 years and theres some aesthetic value that you cant possibly capture, said John Falcon, a retired Army officer who owns land in Omaha, Ga., but lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.
You dont grow a pecan tree to maturity, or a peach tree to maturity, with the ink in the DEIS. You cant turn the clock back on that, Falcon said. We are being asked to give up our homes, and in some cases our livelihood so its tough. That theres a need for (training land); no question. Most of the people here can understand that.
The Department of Defenses Record of Decision is expected to be published in December, Steuber said, after the Final EIS has been published in the federal register and undergone a 30-day waiting period. In the meantime, training, environmental and real estate officials will be walking the land in Stewart County to assess its training value. Some residents insist there are no areas in this region that do not present significant challenges.
If that is the case, Steuber said there are five other alternatives in terms of actual land purchase.
This is just one of them. The sixth one is that we wont purchase any. Ladies and gentlemen, Im here to tell you that is a viable alternative, Steuber said. Which is why it was included in the study, and why we are here going through this with you.
The town hall meeting was intended to be informative and increase communication with the residents of Stewart County, said Monica Manganaro, deputy director of Public Affairs, who coordinated the event. The next time we come out, we hope to have a more detailed map, with county roads so folks can see who may be affected by further studies.
I think (the town hall) was a good start, said Fort. I would suggest going forward its all about relationships. Its about trust. Its about building a relationship with people so they know they can count on you.