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The University of Utah stands to gain 55 acres of Fort Douglas - possibly using some of it to set up a special new campus - but it may take an act of Congress.

Ever since the Defense Department targeted the fort for closure in late 1988, officials have discussed the situation and held public meetings to decide what to do with the property. It's some of the most valuable real estate in Utah, located near the mouth of Red Butte Canyon, with beautiful tree-lined streets, historic homes and administration buildings overlooking Salt Lake City.During a tour of the fort Thursday, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, said the logical disposition would be to transfer the land to the U., which already nearly surrounds the fort.

Army officers won't actually close the fort, which was established in 1862. About 55 acres will be disposed of, while the remaining 64 acres will remain under military control as headquarters for the Army Reserve, recruiters and a readiness training group.

Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Installations and Facilities; Owens; Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis; U. President Chase N. Peterson, and Army officers were briefed and then toured the base.

A small military bus drove the dignitaries around the officers' circle with its flag-bedecked historic sandstone homes. Then they visited the fort museum.

When part of the base is closed, all these areas - plus the large swimming pool, administrative areas and the chapel - will be transferred.

Over the years, the U. has acquired hundreds of acres of Fort Douglas land. Presently, the fort separates the university's Health Sciences Center from its Research Park.

Although the logical transfer may be to the university, the catch is money. A base-closure act passed by Congress contemplates the sale of the base, for cash on the barrel head, to help defray the high cost of closing military installations.

Catch No. 2 is that the U. doesn't have $440 million in loose change to pay the fort's appraised value.

"Everyone felt very good about the U." getting the property, DePaulis said. A provision that was agreed upon is the university would care for the fort's historic district.

But because the university can't afford to buy the land outright, members of a task force have come up with a counter-proposal.

Peterson said the school has about 4,200 acres of federal land still coming to it under old land-grant legislation. University officials would be willing to swap enough of this long-uncollected land to equal the appraisal.

Bureau of Land Management experts estimate about 1,600 acres of the school's land entitlement might equal the appraisal value, according to one official.

Utah's congressional delegation has introduced a bill to facilitate the land trade, but the bill is several weeks away from being marked up in committee.

If the U. acquires the Fort Douglas property, "it would give us a chance to have direct access" between the Health Sciences Center and Research Park, Peterson said. Roads already go through the fort in that area, and the school would "just open the gates."

Also, the land would support the continued growth of Research Park, an institution that Peterson called a vital part of Utah's economy.

Hundred-year-old homes at Fort Douglas, which are to be transferred under the base reduction, would be valuable as "a small residential campus," he said.

This separate campus within the university could be called something like "Fort Douglas College," and might house honors student and faculty members. With a college there, as some other universities have, bonding would be improved in such a specialized academic atmosphere.

But Peterson added, "We don't have the money and we can't ask somebody to provide the money for it."

Owens said of the U. acquiring the land, "There really isn't any other acceptable use."

He told the Deseret News that special legislation might be required to facilitate such a trade. It might take too long to go through a laborious land selection and sale if the university were to try and come up with the money that way.

"The problem with this trade is how to pull it off," Schroeder told the paper. The base closure bill aimed at selling the property to pay for shutting other bases, since "the cost of base closing is ending up being much more expensive than anybody anticipated."

She added, "But we're trying to work it out."


(Additional information)

Land transfer not likely until '95

Army Col. Stacy Reeves, post commander at Fort Douglas, says the transfer of 55 acres of the base's 119 acres probably won't happen before 1995, and before that happens, routine environmental concerns must be cleared up.

The section of the base that is to be declared to be excess includes many officers' homes built between the 1880s and the 1930s. Like other buildings from that period, the sandstone or brick duplexes, triplexes and single dwellings have asbestos fire-proofing.

The asbestos material wrapped around heating pipes poses no immediate hazard, but becomes dangerous when it breaks up and gets into the air.

Before the property can be transferred, the asbestos must be removed.

Reeves said the section to be disposed of should close in September 1994. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to remove the asbestos and certify the property ready for disposal by 1995, he added.