Fort Douglas, which was never attacked in its 127-year history, is now in the middle of a public relations battle between two Utah congressmen.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, are using dueling press releases to argue about who is better watching out for the public as the Army plans to close the fort.Hansen fired off the first press release this week.
It never mentioned Owens by name but said that transferring the fort's title to a local agency such as the University of Utah by administrative means - which Owens hopes to do - is "not practical" and is "fraught with unknowns."
What is practical, according to Hansen, is to use legislation - such as a bill that he and his fellow Republican Rep. Howard Nielson have introduced.
Owens then issued a statement defending his strategy as sound and better than Hansen's. Owens also said in an interview that the fort is in his district and is his concern - not Hansen's.
"It is a Salt Lake City issue. Hansen doesn't ask me what to do in Ogden issues or Logan issues. But sometimes because of committee assignments, I have offered suggestions about issues in his district. That is what Jim is doing now," Owens said.
Hansen said he is not seeking revenge for any earlier action Owens may have taken on issues in his district. Hansen said he is pushing his Fort Douglas bill because he feels it is a good solution, and because he is on the House Armed Forces Committee which oversees such issues.
Regardless of the reason behind it, Hansen said in his press release and an interview that using administrative means to transfer the title of Fort Douglas is not "the most prudent or logical" way because:
- Laws governing base closure require that other defense department agencies be given first chance to use the fort property. If they do not want it, other executive departments have next priority.
- If no federal agency wants it, the land is declared surplus. But laws require surplus land to be given priority consideration for use to help the homeless and for use by the Justice Department as a minimum security prison or as a drug treatment center.
- Laws require that fair market value be paid for surplus land, and Fort Douglas is prime real estate that the University of Utah likely could not afford.
- Hansen said, "An administrative approach places the University of Utah rock bottom on the preference list" and said even if the university is offered it, "the cost to purchase the land will be too expensive to handle."
- He said the way around that is to pass a law preempting the other laws on the books.
Owens offered the following rebuttal points in his press release and interview:
- He has never ruled out the use of legislation similar to that proposed by Hansen, and he will introduce his own bill if it becomes necessary. But administrative transfer, if it can be worked out, would be much easier than pushing a bill through Congress and preferred by the military - according to Robert Rauner, executive director of the Defense Department's economic assistance office.
- Owens has organized a task force with Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis to hold hearings and determine what uses the community prefers for the land. Owens said that is essential for either administrative or legislative solutions. "I will not allow the process to go forward without the people of Salt Lake City having their say."
- Obtaining the concurrence of the secretary of defense is essential for any transfer of Fort Douglas because he has wide options for administrative transfer and has power to fight legislative transfer.
- Owens says it is unrealistic to expect the military or Congress to expect turning over all its closed bases without being paid something for it. He said his task force will examine ways to reduce costs.