Deal aims to protect MacDill, but does it go far enough?

Published Sept. 22, 2016

The state will spend $1.3 million to protect MacDill Air Force Base from residential growth encroaching on it, but the land acquisition is leaving state officials frustrated that they couldn't do more to block plans for a potential hotel that could threaten the base's future.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet agreed to the land purchase Tuesday because it would bar residential development over 25.2 acres owned by Florida Rock & Tank Lines next to MacDill. But enthusiasm over that deal soured when state officials learned from MacDill officials that Florida Rock will continue to have the right to build a hotel or motel on nearly 15 acres on the property's north end, a proximity they deem too close to airfields.

That hotel or motel would be in "accident potential zone" and would be "incompatible" with the base's needs, Col. Pat Miller of the 6th Mission Support Group at MacDill told Scott and the Cabinet before the Tuesday vote.

Cabinet members expressed alarm over the state's inability to prevent a motel that could hinder base operations in the future.

"I have reticence that we were unable to negotiate away a future hotel at the end of a runway," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "I'm not sure why it's such a hot idea anyway."

Florida's Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said he worried that the Air Force's needs were being "run over" in the process.

Still, it's the best deal the state could get, said Bruce Grant, executive director of the Florida Defense Support Task Force, which is part of the state's Enterprise Florida agency.

"It is not optimum and it doesn't take care of the entire problem, but it does take care of part of the problem," Grant said.

Linda Shelley, a lobbyist for Florida Rock, said the company was giving up valuable land rights but has not been able to negotiate a suitable price on the hotel and motel rights on the entire property. The deal approved Tuesday will block hotels or motels on nearly 11 acres closest to MacDill that would have been in what is considered the base's "Clear Zone," an area with the highest potential for a crash.

In 2012, the Legislature created a $7.5 million program to buy land adjacent to three key military installations to prevent development encroaching too closely to the facilities. Besides MacDill, Navy operations near Panama City and Jacksonville were singled out because of their economic impact to the state.

MacDill employs 18,800 personnel. In 2017, MacDill is scheduled to add an additional squadron, eight aircraft and 400 support personnel.

Moments before the Cabinet agreed to the 25-acre buffer, they agreed to spend $1.5 million to buy more than 600 acres near Whiting Field in Panama City.