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MILDENHALL, England — The U.S. Air Force wants to lease homes close to its primary United Kingdom installations.

If only it were that simple.

What began as an effort to move thousands of airmen and their families closer to the tri-base community of RAFs Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Feltwell has devolved into a political spat involving mobilized protesters, a local planning board, a housing developer and, ultimately, the Air Force.

Of late, a Beck Row hotelier with longstanding ties to the Air Force has complicated the matter by announcing plans to build almost 300 homes right outside the RAF Mildenhall back gate — with about half designed to American specifications.

The saga began with a 2003 Air Force analysis that determined a housing shortfall for nearly 600 airmen who serve in East Anglia. In short, airmen are traveling too far for housing. Cambridge-based property developer Ashwell Group won the contract to build 460 American-style homes through a competitive bidding process and drew up plans to develop a tract of open farm land adjacent to RAF Mildenhall.

A vigorous opposition group grew from direct mailings to an organized protest meeting that drew hundreds and, ultimately, to a formal organization with a $10,000 treasury and its own Web site,

The Forest Heath District Council, the local municipality that grants permission to build in the area, is in closed-door consultations with Ashwell as the two try to settle concerns surrounding the proposal, according to council spokeswoman Sally Rode.

“They are mainly dealing with the traffic issues,” Rode said.

The most persistent concern voiced by protesters is the fear of congestion caused by the development along West Row Road, the rural, two-lane road that connects the villages of West Row and Mildenhall.

East Anglian Regional Housing Director Bart Bloemhard said Ashwell is slated to submit planning approval on April 26 and that the council should release a decision in four to six weeks.

If approved, Bloemhard said, obtaining congressional funding is the next step before construction would begin in the fall.

Meanwhile, the owner of The Smoke House Hotel recently announced plans to partner with Britain’s largest homebuilder to build 120 American-style homes adjacent to the hotel, which is across the street from RAF Mildenhall.

Anthony T. Warin, the hotel’s owner, said he also plans to demolish the hotel and construct 150 British homes on the property. The entrepreneur said he is working on plans to rebuild the hotel farther from the base, but closer to the main highway that runs through the area.

Warin said the development is slated to begin later this year, regardless of the outcome of Ashwell’s proposal.

“This is going to go ahead irrespective of that,” said Warin, whose hotel has long hosted parties and receptions for Air Force personnel as well as temporarily housed airmen.

The Air Force said its only contract for build-to-lease homes is with Ashwell and that it is not formally tied to Warin’s demolition and development project.

“There is a shortage of housing in the U.K. and developers are going to build to fill that need,” Bloemhard said.


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