[Photo: KC135 Stratotankers on the runway]
KC135 Stratotankers on the runway

AIRWAY HEIGHTS - It's hard to overestimate the strategic importance of Fairchild Air Force Base in Airway Heights, Washington, just 12 miles southwest of Spokane. Its planes - mostly KC135 Stratotankers with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing - keep our nation's air defense forces flying and at the ready all day, every day.

Stratotankers are a fact of daily life in a 10 square blocks between Russell and Lundstrom Streets in Airway Heights. It's an area of nearly 300 homes - "mostly older manufactured homes," reported Mike Prager of The Spokesman Review, with many residents on fixed or low-incomes. Residents are used to the rumble and roar of the Wing's more than 30 Stratotankers as they land and take off. One even told Prager she finds it "comforting."

The U.S. Air Force is not so sure. For safety's sake it sets standards for population densities in areas adjacent to its airfields. It's designated this community as in an Accident Potential Zone 2, a "designated area around a military airfield where aviation accidents have a higher chance of occurring."

The risk isn't hypotheticals. On September 10, 1962, a KC-135 from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota hit fog and crashed into a mountain 20 miles northeast of Spokane killing 44 crew and passengers. 25 years later, a KC-135 crashed at Fairchild, killing all six on-board and one person on the ground.

In an Accident Potential Zone 2, reported Prager, there should be "no more than two housing units per acre," This community, he wrote, has "about twice as many." Something's got to give, not just to insure safety, but also to make sure that Fairchild stays in the running to be home to the next generation of Stratotankers - the KC-46A - that's expected in service by the end of this decade. The region's largest single employer and generating more than $800 million in local economic activity, Fairchild's future is critical to the future of Spokane and eastern Washington.

"Reducing the residential density in the Accident Potential Zone to Fairchild will help ensure the stability and future of the base, a vital asset to the region," wrote Mayor Patrick Rushing of Airway Heights. "Protecting Fairchild while providing housing options for our residents is a great win-win effort."

That's the focus of the Fairchild Preservation and Community Empowerment Project formed by the City of Airway Heights and including a coalition of other local governments and housing providers including Catholic Charities, Community Frameworks, Habitat for Humanity, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane County, the City of Spokane, the Greenstone Corporation and the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium. It aims "to reduce the residential density in the APZ by developing affordable housing alternatives in safer areas of Airway Heights" No one, the Project emphasizes, will be required to take advantage of any "new affordable housing opportunity outside" the Zone.

The Project's wasted no time creating those opportunities. Last year the coalition conducted a community assessment of demographics, housing conditions and the relocation preferences of the area's residents "to assist them," said Dr. Robert McCann, Catholic Charities executive director, "to find safer housing alternatives and paths to more stable lives." Three coalition members - Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity and Community Frameworks also have told The Spokesman Review they're planning to build 130 units of affordable housing outside the Zone.

More recently, at the request of the City, Spokane County Commissioners have approved a property tax levy for voter approval that would generate up to $20 million to cover the cost of relocating residents. And the State Legislature has appropriated $2.7 million to purchase parcels in the Zone.

Even more recently, Inland Empire Residential Services, the Washington Housing Finance Commission, AFGON and Citigroup Global Markets broke ground Copper Landing Apartments, a 216-unit, $13.9 million multifamily complex near to, but outside of the Zone on land leased by the Kalispel Tribe. In addition to a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, a part of HUD, the Housing Finance Commission has provided Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits and tax exempt bonds so that all of Copper Landing's units will be affordable to families at 60 percent or less of area median income for at least the next 40 years.

Copper Landing, is exactly the kind of affordable housing resources Airway Heights needs. And a sense of urgency has motivated all the partners involved. From proposal to closing, the process took only six months, "a record," says Renee Greenman who directs HUD's multifamily programs in the Northwest.

"Airway Heights is facing a big challenge - protecting lives while preserving one of the region's economic engines," said HUD Northwest Regional Administrator Mary McBride. "At HUD, we're pleased that our programs and resources are contributing to a successful outcome. It's important to all of us who call Washington home."


Content Archived: February 12, 2015