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‘Spy’ balloons worry Camp Verde residents
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Wednesday, 05 January 2011 00:00

A military contractor will be making a presentation this week to the Camp Verde Planning and Zoning Commission about the possibility of flying large balloons 2,500 feet in the skies above Camp Verde.

The Camp Verde Journal originally reported in April a Gilbert-based military contractor, STARA Technologies, was interested in setting up an operation that worked with aerostats, military balloons that fly high over a battlefield keeping an eye on the troops and providing intelligence about surrounding areas. The balloons measure about 75 feet long with a 25-foot circumference.

In a letter to the Camp Verde Town Council in the spring, STARA wrote it found the land in Camp Verde similar to the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan and therefore ideal to test equipment designed for use in central Asia.

Standing near the Camp Verde Sanitary District property Sunday, Jan. 2, Lake Montezuma resident Peppermint Patty Sexton talks about her opposition to the proposed military surveillance balloons.Specifically, the company and its research division, Dateland Proving Grounds, are interested in 15 acres of land east of the White Bridge on State Route 260.

The land is owned by the Camp Verde Sanitary District, but is under an agreement to be leased to the Town of Camp Verde for $1 a year for the next several years as part of a deal the town reached with the district to help fund construction of a new sewage treatment plant.

STARA announced, if approved and completed, the site would host anywhere from 15 to 30 employees at any given time, testing equipment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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The company hosted a community meeting just before Christmas, where representatives assured residents the optics on the balloons would not be trained on local homes or the activities of local residents.

Still, some residents have concerns and questions they’d like to have answered.

Some people have doubts about placing their trust in a company that fields what are essentially spy balloons.

“I feel this could very well lead to privacy violations,” said Peppermint Patti Sexton, a resident in the Lake Montezuma area. “I feel that we have to be very protective of our rights. Someone has to stand up for them. We shouldn’t give them away without question; all of us have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Dateland Proving Grounds has reiterated it has company policies in place that prohibit looking at private citizens in their homes.
Others expressed concerns go beyond privacy issues. Steve Sprinz, a local pilot, said he was concerned over how the balloons might affect local flights from regional airstrips. He also wondered about the visual impact of the balloons, which would be visible from miles around.

“Radio towers are one thing,” Sprinz said. “They’re all marked on the charts. But this is a horse from a different garage.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued waivers for the company to operate in other areas of the state, provided the proper notifications are given.

In Camp Verde, the U.S. Forest Service has expressed concern over the company’s proposal, because it owns much adjacent land and sometimes operate aircraft in the area.

Doug Powell, a representative with Dateland Proving Grounds, responded to the Forest Service saying the company already works with the U.S. Border Patrol in other parts of the state, and notifies that agency anywhere from six to 72 hours before a launch. Powell also indicated the balloons are tethered, but can be brought down quickly if one should somehow manage to break loose, another concern raised by the Forest Service.

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Alan Buchanan said there were still issues that need to be addressed, particularly reaching an agreement on how this particular 15 acres can be used should the town sign off on the project. The company is seeking a three-to-five-year lease.

Another issue is access to the property.

The Forest Service controls access to the land, and it gave the sanitary district a special permit to get to it, but that permit didn’t transfer to the town.

Councilwoman Carol German said earlier this year she had talked with the Forest Service, and the agency seemed willing to work out a deal, especially since the town’s purchase of the nearby 118-acre park helped fund the construction of the Forest Service’s new state-of-the-art ranger station.

Town Engineer Ron Long said in April any improvements would have to be coordinated through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because it would potentially impact a wash on the property.

The public is invited to the hearing on the project at the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 6, at Town Hall at 473 S. Main St., Room 106.

 

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