The Bad Tenant

When the Navy abandoned ship at the Dallas Naval Air Station, it left an expensive mess behind

Although it may not seem so, the settlement is a good break for the city. Most property that the Navy abandons is property that the Navy bought and owns. When the Navy leaves those stations, they clean up to a standard that allows property to be sold again and quickly taken off of Navy books.

In Dallas, the Navy was only a tenant (paying a total of $4 in rent). And, like a bad tenant, the Navy tried to just walk away, leaving cigarette burns, stains and broken toilets for a landlord that could use the earnings potential that the station was once thought to represent.

Jim Beltz, public affairs officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Charleston, South Carolina, says he can't speak directly to the Dallas air station because of the lawsuit. But, he says, the Navy is prohibited from maintaining property once it is slated for transfer to another owner. In Dallas, the transfer process has taken nearly 10 years.

Top and center: damage in one of the buildings of the abandoned Dallas Naval Air Station. Bottom: trophies left in one of the offices.
Mark Graham
Top and center: damage in one of the buildings of the abandoned Dallas Naval Air Station. Bottom: trophies left in one of the offices.
Dave Howe, assistant city attorney, leans on a rail over a flooded stairwell at the Dallas Naval Air Station. A settlement in a lawsuit with the Navy will pay to drain and restore flooded basements such as this one.
Mark Graham
Dave Howe, assistant city attorney, leans on a rail over a flooded stairwell at the Dallas Naval Air Station. A settlement in a lawsuit with the Navy will pay to drain and restore flooded basements such as this one.

"One of our objectives is to transfer the property to the local communities' tax rolls and into the local economy for redevelopment quickly," he says. "We try to spend taxpayer dollars judiciously."

While it appears that the city will get compensation, it's ultimately going to cost taxpayers about $50 million in federal money to clean up after the Navy.

"This is kind of the way I think about it," Howe says. "You lease it out, the guy comes up to you and smiles and hands you the keys, goes away and you go into the apartment and you find he's trashed it."


A few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the young American men who would fly the Navy's airplanes into battle started arriving at what was known as Hensley Field, a little airstrip just east of Grand Prairie. Wesley Hays, an 81-year Coleman resident, was one of them.

"I set my bags down there on the 21st of May 1942," he says. "That's where I was sent first. That's where I took my primary training."

There wasn't much to the air station then. It started out as an Army Air Corps airfield in 1928. By the time World War II broke out, it still didn't even have a mess hall, Hays says. When Hays set his bags down, the now-waterlogged hangar was there, and so were a couple of officers quarters and an underground bunker. The military declared that it needed the airfield and city land around it for the war effort. As they would do for the next half-century, the cities of Dallas and Grand Prairie obliged the military.

By 1946 there were 44 buildings on the station, which had been expanded to more than 700 acres. In the 1950s, to extend the runway for jets and bigger aircraft, the Navy filled in part of Mountain Creek Lake, a 2,710-acre man-made body of water created in the 1930s to cool a nearby electric plant. Next to the airfield at the north, about 300 acres is still Navy-owned and unaffected by the closure. The property has been used as a Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant and is occupied by Navy contractor Vought Aircraft Industries. The city agreed to extend its lease there until 2019.

The Navy mostly used the station for pilot training and aircraft maintenance and testing. The Navy operated as if the station were going to be around for a while, and during the Cold War no one had any reason to believe otherwise. As late as 1985, the Navy was making plans to update administrative offices, the runway, runway lighting and radar systems. Just a few years later, much to the surprise of city officials, the air station was deemed dispensable. In 1993, the Navy made it known that it would be moving out.

As part of vacating a property like the Dallas Naval Air Station, the Navy is required to conduct extensive environmental studies to reveal problems the Navy may have caused, whether a record of the original activity or dumped material was made or not. Officials from various state and local agencies and the public are supposed to take part in such studies.

And so the Navy studied. They formed citizen committees to talk about the future of the station and the effect the closure would have on surrounding communities. Media coverage of the initial news of the closure was widespread. The subsequent "scoping" process, when the Navy conducted groundwater tests and researched environmental damage done during the Navy's tenancy, was largely ignored by the press and public. Advocates for the environment, the omnipresent figures at public meetings in most states, are not even represented in the written record.

Environmental studies would go on for about five years. Committee members came and went. The thankless job of sitting through hours and hours of briefings by environmental experts and sorting through reams of documents was bad enough. It seemed, said Roger Kallenberg, one former committee member, that the committee never got around to talking about what to do with the station once the Navy left. All they did, he said, was talk about environmental problems.

"I was talking about what to do with the place; all they were talking about was cleaning it up," he says.

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