Some in Gloucester Twp. protest Army center plan

By Wallace McKelvey

Inquirer Staff Writer

A lone oak tree is the remnant of 11 woodland acres in Gloucester Township. Footholds nailed into the trunk once led to a treehouse where children played.

With plans for a $21 million Army Reserve training center moving forward, some residents fear the surviving oak, a neighborhood playground, and township tax revenue will be lost.

"They say there'll be no impact on people or the environment, but we're here," said Lisa Cowne, who lives just beyond the site, which is near the intersection of Cross Keys and Kearsley Roads.

Federal spending for the complex, which Army officials say would bring jobs and economic growth to the area, was approved by the House last week and is in the Senate.

The center would replace the Nelson Brittin Army Reserve Center in Pennsauken, said Ron Elliott, director of communications for the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisville, Ky. About 364 personnel from Brittin and other centers would be reassigned to the new center.

"Being a former military guy myself," Elliott said, "you do frequent local businesses where you're stationed. Plus, some of the citizen soldiers may work in the community."

Mayor Cindy Rau Hatton did not know about the project until the township received a request last week for a sewer extension through an adjacent playground, she said.

Because it is a federal project, the township is not likely to receive tax revenue from it, Hatton said.

"I am not happy about this at all," she said.

In the past, she said, such projects have paid for local improvement or pilot programs in place of taxes.

"They haven't even had a discussion with us about this," Hatton said. "I don't know if we can legally stop it, but I'm looking into it."

The news came two years after the woods behind her house were cleared, Cowne said. Ryegrass was planted and is periodically mowed.

"They created what looks like farmland, and that's how they're selling it," she said.

The corps lists the parcel as "agricultural," with no endangered species inhabiting it. Although most of the wildlife habitat was cleared, Crowne occasionally sees redheaded woodpeckers, listed as endangered by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

"The whole environment has changed," she said of her backyard view.

The corps is collecting contractor bids, Elliott said. Completion is expected in March 2011.

A 53,300-square-foot building would house a weapons simulator, classrooms, a library, and fitness areas for the Army Reserve and National Guard, he said. The center also would include a 1,200-square-foot storage building and a 6,900-square-foot maintenance shop.

The money would be allocated through the Army Reserve, Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Daugherty of the National Guard said.

"It's a great deal for us," he said. "If we want to send some soldiers there, we have space for us at no cost to the state."

The complex would resemble a college campus with brick buildings and open space, Elliott said.

The Army has been building state-of-the-art bases instead of maintaining old ones, he said, adding, "The soldiers, whether they're active or reservists, deserve better facilities than what they've had in the past."

Cowne and her neighbors worry about the effect 21/4 paved acres will have on drainage.

"We already have serious water problems and flooded basements," she said.

With no trees left between Cowne's home and the proposed reserve center, she is also concerned about privacy.

"That's all I need," she said. "Going into my pool worrying about who's watching."

Cowne has been organizing her neighborhood in opposition to the center by distributing information about it and visiting officials.

"I understand it's progress," she said, "but having the woods torn down, and now this - it's just difficult to adjust to."

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