SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 30, 2012

Air Force to demolish local Cold War-era antenna station

BY BETHANY BRAY
STAFF WRITER

---- — IPSWICH — Ipswich’s small part in Cold War history is scheduled to be demolished.

The U.S. Air Force plans to terminate its lease of 16 Skytop Road, which it has used as an antenna-testing facility for more than 70 years. In doing so, the landowners have asked the Air Force to demolish all structures on the 65-acre site.

Demolition is slated to start in October, said John Balch, a member of The Proprietors of Great Neck, a family group that owns the land and has leased it to the Air Force since 1945.

The proprietors have yet to decide what they’ll do with the property once the Air Force is gone, Balch said. The town of Ipswich has expressed interest in purchasing the site for many years.

The Air Force “inactivated” the site in June 2011 and officially closed the facility July 31, 2011, said Sarah Olaciregui, a member of the public affairs office at Hanscom Air Force Base.

The unit responsible for the Ipswich site was transferred to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the testing formerly conducted in Ipswich will now be done at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, she said.

The Air Force held an inactivation ceremony for the Ipswich site at Hanscom Air Force Base, complete with an Air Force band. At the ceremony, Air Force personnel lauded the facility for years of cutting-edge work, including the invention and development of several types of antenna technology, radar systems and atmospheric research.

In accordance with the terms of their lease, the Air Force will “return the site to a vegetated state,” according to a May 2012 environmental report the Air Force completed on the Ipswich facility. All structures will be demolished, including driveways, paved areas and a chain-link fence around the property; buried utility lines and oil storage tanks will also be removed.

“The property is no longer needed to support the Air Force mission,” the Air Force report stated. However, “The Ipswich antenna station is highly (historically) significant for its association with cold war defense research and development programs.”

The Air Force’s lease extended through 2039.

The landowners “have mixed emotions” about the Air Force vacating the site, Balch said.

The Proprietors of Great Neck are a corporation of seven cousins, the descendants of A.B. Clark, who passed the land on when he died in the early 1900s, Balch said.

The proprietors once owned all of Great Neck, the peninsula on which the Air Force facility is located, said longtime Selectman Patrick McNally. Much of it has been sold for residential development, and the town recently bought a large parcel that abuts the Air Force site.

“This is the last of the proprietor property (on Great Neck) that I know of, and it would be wonderful to have it as undeveloped land for recreation,” said McNally, who has lived on Great Neck since the 1970s. “This has always been a property of interest. ... The town has been interested in acquiring the (site of the Air Force facility) for a long, long, long time.”

In February, Ipswich selectmen denied the Air Force’s request to waive the fee for a demolition permit. At the time, Air Force representative David Wong estimated the permit fee would be $27,000, and the demolition costs were estimated at $3 million.

Ipswich Building Inspector Jim Sperber said last week that his department has yet to receive any permit applications from the Air Force but recently had an inquiry from a demolition company creating an estimate for work at the site.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense approved the Air Force’s closure recommendation for the facility in 2005. Five structures sit on the site, including the main testing facility, several antenna towers, sheds, a garage and a barracks building.

The facility was first developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Air Force took it over after World War II. Demolition will be the first major development at the site in three decades; the last building was constructed on-site in 1981.

The site was selected because it’s isolated, secure and “ideal for sending and receiving electromagnetic waves without reflection,” according to the Air Force environmental report.

The site sits atop of a large hill, a glacial drumlin, which overlooks the Parker River estuary and Plum Island Sound. Residential homes line Skytop Road and are situated next to and directly across the street from the facility.

Over the years, the facility has had little interaction with the community, McNally said, although boaters approaching Great Neck would use its lighting as a landmark.

“Frankly, I don’t believe there were that many people working out there,” he said. “Basically, it’s a testing place. They would bounce radar signals between the two hills.”

The facility now sits empty, with a lock on the fence and a red X posted on each of the site’s structures, which alerts firefighters not to enter the structure in case of a fire.

The Air Force environmental report, located at the Ipswich Public Library, gives details of short-term impacts on the area during demolition, such as truck traffic and noise, but no expectation of long-term impacts.

A 2002 archaeological study identified a “pre-contact Native American site” on the property. The Air Force developed an “archaeological site protection plan” last year to ensure that the Native American area will not be disturbed during demolition.

Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.