Building 100 or "The Taj Mahal" at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
Building 100, also known as "The Taj Mahal," at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Hoss Brown tends bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 4676 in southern Universal City, not far from the main gate into Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. He lives in a Schertz neighborhood near the Air Force base.

Brown is used to the daily sights and sounds of trainer planes and jet fighters flying overhead. He loves the scene and says he never worries about aircraft-related accidents.

“To me, the people who are flying these planes are the best there is,” Brown said. “They’re not coming here unless they know what they’re doing … I have total faith in them.”

Brown said he’s amazed by the amount of residential and commercial development that has taken place around Randolph in the last 20 to 30 years. But he is not fazed by the civilian growth or activity happening on base.

“You know [the base] is there, so you adapt to it,” he said.

Adapting to growth is something local civilian governments and military commanders have in common. Randolph’s neighboring cities, Universal City and Schertz, are doing what they can to ensure their growth does not adversely impact the military mission.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense is working with these and other communities to ensure that civilians living and doing business near Randolph are comfortable with the level of aircraft noise and safe from potential accidents.

At a time when the federal government is calling for greater efficiency in the armed forces, this may be more important than ever as local officials push San Antonio as a prime place for even more military missions.

Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, director of the City of San Antonio’s Office of Military Affairs and a former Marine, said one of his office’s principal goals is to ensure the San Antonio area’s continuing growth does not overwhelm any of the active military facilities.

“The bases used to be out in the boonies,” Ayala said. “Now, urban encroachment has caught up to them.”

Outlying communities surrounding Randolph such as Converse, Schertz, and Universal City had existed long before the then-Army Air Corps opened an airfield in the area in 1931. Hundreds of thousands of people have since flocked to the region to settle down outside San Antonio’s city limits. The population in the small cities surrounding Randolph including Universal City, Schertz, Converse, and Cibolo grew 48 percent – from 70,085 to 103,755 – between 2011 to 2016, according to the latest American Community Survey population estimates.

Randolph employs 9,400 military and civilian personnel. Home to the U.S. Air Force’s 12th Flying Training Wing and the Air Education and Training Command, Randolph oversees more than 210,000 flight operations annually. The total economic impact of Joint Base San Antonio that includes Randolph in 2015 was more than $48.7 billion, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Some cities like Universal City have no more unincorporated land to annex and expand their city limits. Other cities have space within their city limits to continue their present surges of commercial, industrial, and residential development.

Through it all, leaders of these communities strive to maintain a close and productive relationship with Randolph, keeping base command updated on developments across the areas surrounding Randolph, which has come to be known as the Metrocom.

Officials such as Ayala believe encroaching development, if not regulated, could make Randolph or other local facilities a target for a future round of Base Realignments And Closures (BRAC). But another round of BRAC will not come sooner than 2021.

Leaders of Randolph-area communities agree a proactive, conservative approach with the military is the best way to protect both the base’s mission and how surrounding cities regulate their development and growth.

“We’re consistently meeting with leaders from Joint Base and Randolph,” said Schertz Mayor Michael Carpenter. “We talk about whatever concerns either entity has. We keep Randolph abreast on what’s happening in our city, and we’re doing our best to comply with their needs.”

Ayala agreed that the relationships among Randolph, other local bases, and neighboring cities have remained strong over the decades.

“The City of San Antonio, landowners, developers, and bases all have a great relationship,” he said. “The military is not opposed to development. It understands San Antonio will grow by 1.1 million people by 2040.”

Doug Opersteny, 12th Flying Training Wing community initiatives chief, said his team works closely with the local communities on a regular basis to ensure compatible land use around Randolph and the Seguin Airport, which for years has hosted a base auxiliary field for training takeoffs and landings.

Compatible land use, or the best use of land surrounding a military installation that does not conflict with the base’s mission, is a guiding force for area military and civilian leaders. The Department of Defense has periodically studied the evolving needs of facilities and how the neighboring communities can best maintain their level of growth without affecting the military mission or civilians’ safety.

Department of Defense and Randolph officials worked with surrounding counties, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders over 12 months to produce in July 2015 a joint land use study (JLUS) for Randolph. The JLUS is a big-picture look at how Randolph and its neighboring stakeholders could agree on best land-use planning practices and improving communication.

Additionally, the military has spent the last few months previewing to the public an updated Air Installation Compatibility Use Zones (AICUZ) study. The AICUZ study, periodically conducted by the Department of Defense, is more technical in nature and more detailed in its analysis of effects from aircraft noise and accident potential on neighboring communities.

Randolph’s operational footprint, according to the JLUS, includes accident potential zones (APZs) and noise contours, both of which affect development surrounding the base.

There are three APZs at Randolph: APZ I, APZ II, and a Clear Zone. The clear zone measures 3,000 feet wide and stretches 3,000 feet from each end of Randolph’s east and west runways, north and south of the base.

This map shows the Accident Potential Zones, areas where aircraft accidents are most likely to occur, surrounding Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Credit: Dept. of the Air Force

The APZs extend thousands of feet further out from the clear zones. The zones are areas where aircraft accidents are most likely to occur if they do happen. 

The last accident to take place on base was in July 2013 when a T-38 Talon jet belly-landed on the east runway; the plane’s two instructor pilots were not hurt. The last fatal crash at the base occurred in March 2003, when a T-38 veered off a runway and hit a barrier stanchion; one pilot died.

The Department of Defense also identifies noise contours, which assess relative aircraft noise levels around a military airfield as a planning tool for local civilian agencies. Noise exposure is measured using an average of cumulative noise exposure resulting from base operations over a 24-hour period.

The 2015 JLUS identified potential challenges in the Randolph area. A few are:

  • Development of solar and wind energy facilities;
  • Dust, smoke, and steam produced by military and civilian activities;
  • Available housing; infrastructure (water, power, transit) extensions;
  • Light and glare from civilian and military activities;
  • Noise and vibration from military training exercises and civilian uses; and
  • Increasing diversity of uses in surrounding air space, including the operation of drones and similar unmanned aerial vehicles.

Recommendations on these and other issues are numerous throughout the JLUS, including more restrictive density and land-use guidelines around the APZs and noise contours south of the base.

Compatible uses recommended in the 2015 study include: Residential development of one house per 10 acres within the southern APZ II on the west runway and residential development of one house per 20 acres within the southern APZ II on the east runway. Denser development is incompatible in these areas.

Development within the southern APZ I along both runways is considered incompatible with base operations, as is residential development in any noise contour where the day-night average sound level is 65 decibels or louder. For comparison, the noise a vacuum cleaner generates is about 70 decibels.

Neighboring stakeholders pledged to respond to those concerns. Bexar County officials agreed in 2016 to purchase 91 acres of land in order to create a new buffer zone around Randolph, using $1.3 million in County funds and $4.7 million from a grant awarded by the Texas Military Preparedness Commission.

A T-1A Jayhawk takes off at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
A T-1A Jayhawk takes off at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The County carried out a previous acquisition of another 51 acres around Randolph. Altogether, these property buyouts were valued at $10.7 million – all to support the formation of a 142-acre buffer zone in which no civilian development is allowed.

Another issue raised in the 2015 JLUS is a need for improved communication between Randolph and its neighboring cities when it comes to land-use issues. Kim Turner, Universal City’s development services director, said base officials would like to be updated on civilian development plans in a more timely manner. In doing the 2015 JLUS, base officials inquired about the beginnings of civilian developments that now fall into the paths of newly expanded accident potential zones.

Two such examples in Universal City are part of the 178-acre Northlake Business Park and Veterans Park, an eight-acre public park with a network of walking trails and views along Cibolo Creek.

Part of Aviation Heights, a decades-old neighborhood in Schertz, fell into a then-smaller AICUZ pathway outlined years ago. For Schertz’s part, nothing can be done about inhabited neighborhoods, Carpenter said, other than to ensure emergency first-responders are equipped and trained to respond to a local incident off or on base in which aid from multiple agencies is needed.

Carpenter said Schertz will concentrate on how best to follow up on the recommendations in the 2015 JLUS: “The new [JLUS] calls for less [housing] density, so we’re working to get as close as possible to those newer requirements.”

Northlake Business Park was built at the turn of the 21st century, and part of the city-owned property lies inside an accident potential zone. Universal City’s website describes the business park as “focused primarily on retail, office and office/warehouse tenancy.”

“But no businesses were built in that area without Randolph knowing about it,” Turner said about the park property inside the zone. Instead, the land there was dedicated to distribution and warehouse uses.

The Veterans Park land was once slated as an apartment development, but was deemed too close to a base runway. Universal City bought the property and turned it into a small park, used mostly as a trail head.

Turner said it was not a case of Universal City defying the wishes of Randolph personnel who were keeping their eyes on compatible land uses.

“People at Randolph probably didn’t even know what happened with the land originally,” she said.

Universal City Mayor John Williams, who served on the Randolph JLUS Executive Committee, agreed. “People who come to live here are here for the long term,” he said. “The people at Randolph are there for the short term.”

Universal City has 198 acres of mostly undeveloped farmland in its extra-territorial jurisdiction next to Schertz, within an accident potential zone. The city has no near-term plans to formally add the acreage, which has been designated mostly for commercial zoning with the potential of some residential zoning.

Maintenance workers fill the fuel tanks of T-38 Talon aircrafts at Randolph Air Force Base.
Maintenance workers fill the fuel tanks of T-38 Talon aircrafts at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Turner said the 2015 JLUS was also helpful in that it emphasizes more timely digital exchanges of information between Joint Base-Randolph and the neighboring cities.

“Every single time something new [proposed development] comes up, [cities] send a package to us, we get to review it, and we say according to AICUZ this is compatible or is there something we can do to make it better, where we both get something out of it,” said Lt. Col. Paul Strom, 12th Flying Training Wing Community Initiatives.

Schertz Mayor Carpenter agreed: “If a development comes down the pike, it’s our intention to go to the Air Force and make sure we’re on the same page.”

Civilians who live and work in the towns around Randolph tell the Rivard Report they appreciate how the military helps keep them safe from adverse effects of the base’s aircraft operations.

U.S. Navy veteran Roland Thornton, who lives in Universal City, recalls the fatal collision of two Blue Angel jets above Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey in 1973. But the potential for such an incident around Randolph doesn’t concern him.

“Sure, you never know. Anything could happen, but I’m not worried about it,” he said.

The same goes for Mandy Masson, a Schertz resident who works at a dog grooming shop off Pat Booker Road, the main Universal City corridor leading to Randolph.

“I’ve lived in the San Antonio area all my life, around bases like Lackland,” Masson said. “You hear and see planes all the time. You get used to it.”

Converse resident Diane Wallen spent some years working at Boysville, the children’s home and shelter in Converse near Randolph. She said she hasn’t had any issues living or working near the base.

“This is the second Air Force base I’ve lived close to and never thought about being worried about either one,” she said. “I worry more about the encroachment of new development in the area affecting the success of the mission at the base.”

Brad Lacy, vice president of marketing for Pulte Group in the San Antonio market, said restrictions around Randolph occasionally make it difficult for developers to build homes at affordable prices.

“The municipalities and government officials creating and/or enforcing these guidelines have been great partners to Pulte Group, and we all believe the safety of the citizens of Schertz, Universal City, and Converse is paramount,” Lacy said.

“This submarket is extremely attractive to buyers due to its proximity to military installations, major thoroughfares like Loop 1604 and Interstate 35, shopping, and several major employers, so Pulte Group not only has a presence now but we plan on keeping a strong presence in this area for years to come.”

All involved – military and civilian – agree the AICUZ and JLUS initiatives, among others, help keep communities safe and preserve military missions.

“Every single one of our community partners have been extremely motivated and outgoing to support our mission,” said Opersteny at Randolph. “We maintain open lines of communication to ensure incompatible development does not negatively impact our cities or the mission of the 12th Flying Training Wing.”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.