Saturday, January 23, 2010

DOT letter suggests Navy Catch-22, Laurelwood buyout as clear option

A December 23, 2009 letter from the Department of Navy (DoN) to the New Jersey Department of Transportation, obtained Friday by NOPE, suggests that Navy leadership was grossly misguided to think that obtaining state permits to build an unimpeded access road for civilian housing at NWS Earle would be a cakewalk, or that the state should compromise its standards. (We will post the letter once we have a more-legible version.)

In short, and without getting technical about key terms mentioned in the letter such as "sovereign immunity" and the New Jersey "Access Code," it seems at first glance that the DoN inadvertently caught itself in a Catch-22 that may have the benign effect of causing it to miss its deadline to open the base and 300 Laurelwood military houses to civilian renters, and invoke the contract-agreed buyout process.

Earle's public works officer wrote to the NJDOT director that, by the Navy’s account, the Navy (as landowner) is restricted by Federal law from applying for the permits. At the same time, by the Navy’s account, if Laurelwood Homes LLC (the owner/developer of the 300 homes at Earle) has not itself requested permits, no actionable highway connection permit request exists. From what we can tell, the developer has applied for no such permits. And since the developer does not own the right-of-way land, DOT has stated that the developer does not qualify for a permit.

In terms of NOPE's interest in preventing civilian housing for the next 30 years at NWS Earle, this is potentially good news, in that:
  1. The DoN procrastinated on what was an urgent and, as we have now learn, controversial permitting process. The Navy knew what permits were needed as of May 22, 2009 when it issued its Record of Decision picking Route Alignment 4. The DoN also knew that it had made a contractual commitment to have permits in place by April 30, 2010.
  2. The DoN did not move promptly to have its partner, Laurelwood, secure permits. The Navy’s spurious “Need and Purpose” described in the Laurelwood Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was to “satisfy the contractual obligation” for unimpeded access, but a major critical path task was left until December.
  3. What seemed to be a straightforward permit application matter, in fact, has morphed into a time-consuming , expensive exercise with follow-on ramifications. The DoN's genuine “purpose and need” for opening Earle to civilians was to stop paying $10,000-plus per day for renting empty housing, but its purposed solution is more costly than a buyout.
In NOPE's view, a buyout is the only way to end this entire Laurelwood civilian housing mess. Remember, DoN officials that NOPE met in mid-2008 in Washington, D.C. lied to our faces (and a U.S. congressman, we might add) about why the Department could not simply void the Laurelwood housing contract, as the contract language provided (if the U.S. was in a declared National Emergency) and as NOPE long argued. The excuse that a particular DoN representatives gave us was that the DoN did not want to be perceived as a "bad business partner." It was not until NOPE obtained and read the Laurelwood lease, however, that we learned the truth was that the DoN foolishly signed away this right in 2002 - less than a year after the 9/11 terror attacks - so that Laurelwood could refinance its mortgage! The DoN, of course, left this information out of the Laurelwood EIS.

This leaves the buyout option. Candidly, NOPE has no interest in whether Laurelwood gets a penny more from U.S. taxpayers from this housing debacle. The company has already collected $70 million-plus of rents from the DoN on the deal. We simply argue that, without the ability to void the contract in the interest of national defense, that the DoN wake up to the realization that the best option is to engage Laurelwood in some kind of process to bring this whole charade to an end and alleviate the stress on Earle's surrounding communities and the base itself. The DoN should be in the business of national defense, not as a property manager or host to civilian communities inside a military weapons base.

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