RICHLAND, Ga. " Fort Benning officials met the public Monday to discuss land in western and central Stewart County marked as the preferred alternative for possible acquisition by the Army.

It was the first of four “open house” sessions across the Chattahoochee Valley this week. The group went to Russell County High School in Seale, Ala., on Tuesday and is scheduled to hit the Josh Gibson Center today in Buena Vista, Ga. That will be followed by the Community Center in Waverly Hall, Ga., on Thursday. The times are 4 to 7 p.m. each day.

The Army released a draft environmental impact statement last month and is conducting a 45-day comment period in which the public can express concerns and ask questions about the land targeted for potential use. More than 200 people turned out at the Richland Hotel for Monday’s kickoff.

“We decided we needed to come here first because their anxiety level is a little higher than the other counties,” said Deputy Garrison Commander George Steuber. “Everybody’s a little more concerned than in the past because it looks more like a reality.”

Just because Fort Benning officials are in Stewart County first doesn’t mean a decision has been made, he said.

Under the Training Land Expansion Program announced last June, the land in Stewart County, called Alternative 3, is one of five alternatives that have been identified. Steuber said any of them could potentially meet the Army’s needs, but more data is needed before a final decision can be made.

Fort Benning began looking at the feasibility of purchasing up to 82,800 acres of additional training land to meet the requirements of 21st-century maneuver training. Since the program started, post officials have studied about 260,000 acres in proximity to the installation in Stewart, Marion, Webster, Harris and Talbot counties in Georgia, along with Russell County in Alabama.

The vast majority of areas being studied are large chunks of commercial timberland, the same type of terrain Soldiers use now in training, Fort Benning officials said. Environmental protection and finding land suitable for training with the least population density are among the other criteria.

“Some people are really concerned and rightfully so. One guy told me his land has been in his family for 100 years, so we’ve got to take that into consideration,” Steuber said. “This is our opportunity to reach out to the folks. … It’s a partnership that demonstrates we’re here to work with our community partners and make sure we’re doing them right.”

At the public meetings, post officials have five stations set up to provide information on environmental, training and real estate issues. There’s also a welcome desk and court reporter, who’s gathering comments for the public record that will be assessed as the process moves forward.

Richland Mayor Adolph McLendon said some residents have an “emotional attachment” to land that’s been in their family for several generations.

“They just hate to see it go,” he said. “They’re concerned about how it may affect them personally and the retirement plans they’ve made. Fort Benning came down here today to lessen the impact and make sure everyone has a fair say.”

Any future land deal in Stewart County " where the population is roughly 5,600 people " would trigger a 40 percent loss in tax revenues, McLendon said. That burden would fall on the remaining property owners.

“They’re listening,” he said of post officials. “We’re looking at all angles now to see if we can offset the tax-base issue. I’m satisfied part of those concerns will be met.
“People around here are pretty proud of their military, and we understand they’ve got to have a place to train. Fort Benning personnel have been great, and they’re trying to answer our biggest issues.”

Steuber said Fort Benning needs additional heavy maneuver training space for the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team and the land expansion efforts are not tied to Base Realignment and Closure. The needed tracts must accommodate the simultaneous training of two heavy battalions.

“The bottom line is the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team has to be ready for war, and the focus of this is really on meeting those training requirements,” he said.

Real estate and military experts will walk the lands to assess their training value, Steuber said. Environmental teams are researching the presence of possible hazardous waste contamination in the study area and checking for any endangered or threatened species ahead of a final environmental impact statement expected this fall, which could lead to a decision by the end of the year.

He said no decisions have been made on any Fort Benning land purchases, and the entire equation could be affected by the $400 billion in military cuts forecast during the next 12 years.