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WILLOW GROVE, PA-The US Air Force has agreed in principle to a plan that will establish a “joint interagency base” at the 910-acre, 170-building Willow Grove US Naval Air Station. The news came in a joint statement by Gov. Ed Rendell and Senators Arlen Specter and Robert Casey. The plan, submitted by Rendell, calls for the Navy to transfer ownership of the base to the Air Force, which will either lease or license it to the commonwealth initially and eventually transfer it to state ownership.

According to Rendell, “The Willow Grove of the future will function in much the same way as Fort Indiantown Gap does–as an installation under state jurisdiction with operations by federal government agencies and National Guard and reserve military units.” Currently it is one of few bases that houses both US military and state National Guard.

The BRAC Commission designated the base for closure in 2005, and, ever since, Rendell and state congressional representatives have pursued various strategies to save the facility. Following its listing on the BRAC closure list, Rendell sued the Department of Defense based on the “militia clause” in the Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from making changes to the National Guard without a governor’s consent. A federal judge ruled in Rendell’s favor, but a method of separating the federal and state interests remained unresolved.

While the latest effort has won approval from Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the agreement requires review by the office of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and approval of the Navy. Under the agreement, the Navy will leave Willow Grove in 2011. The Air Force has requested that the Navy then transfer the installation to the Air Force.

In a letter to Rendell, Wynne says two Air Force National Guard units will remain at Willow Grove. “Pennsylvania would assume full responsibility for the property it obtains from the Air Force, including operational costs, and would ensure that the installation remains available to support continuing military and other governmental operations, including flying operations,” he adds.

The lease, Wynne says, “would be short-term, after which the Air Force would transfer title as soon as practicable to the Commonwealth. This arrangement will allow Pennsylvania to preserve the current military capabilities of the installation, permit possible joint use as a civilian airport, and provide time for Pennsylvania to attract other governmental users to the long-term missions envisioned for Willow Grove.”

Other governmental users, cited by Rendell in an earlier effort to block disposition of the base, are those associated with the Federal Emergency Management Association, the Environmental Protection Agency and Homeland Security. In a statement thanking the Air Force for its support, Rendell says, “with its key strategic location, excellent airfield and existing facilities, it was vitally important that Willow Grove be maintained to support national defense, homeland security, emergency preparedness and other governmental missions.” Further terms of the agreement have yet to be delineated.

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