On the map of Stennis Space Center, from the early 1960s when it was still named "Mississippi Test Facility"/"Mississippi Test Operations", part of the area is labeled "Fee area".

MTF map

(source: Stages to Saturn, p75)

What is a "fee area" and why is it named that way?


The fee area serves to distinguish between the part of the facility that the federal government owns outright, and the surrounding area that it does not own outright, but has the right to send loud noises through.

  • fee area - federal government owns outright
  • restrictive easement - federal government owns a perpetual interest

The 125,000-acre acoustical buffer zone surrounding Stennis was established by NASA in the 1960s to enable testing of large engines and stages of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo Program...

The buffer zone was established in the early days of the center, when property interests were acquired for the use and benefit of the United States government. The 13,800-acre fee area, or developed portion of Stennis, was purchased outright by the federal government. In addition, the government acquired a perpetual interest in some 125,442 acres to form a restrictive zone completely surrounding the fee area. The interest acquired in this additional land is referred to as a restrictive easement. This restrictive zone is what is now known as the buffer zone.

The government’s restrictive easement establishes a restricted area in, on, across and over the land in the buffer zone, giving the government the right to prohibit habitation or occupancy of dwellings and other buildings. The government also has the right to prohibit the construction of buildings allowing for, or susceptible to, habitation and reserves the right to remove structures in violation of this easement. The easement does permit other uses when those activities do not interfere with or reduce the rights of the government.

When the government acquired the restrictive easement, some property owners decided to sell their land in the buffer zone to the government, rather than sell just an easement. These limited land parcels are considered part of the government’s fee area. However, many property owners elected to sell only an easement interest to the government, and to retain their property and all other rights in that property.

From Stennis Officials Issue Buffer Zone Reminder

As an aside, it was briefly called the National Space Technology Labs, and had this awesome patch of a gator riding an SSME.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I get it now. Not being a native speaker of English, I know "fee" only as "payment". But looking up the word in the dictionary now, I find: "(HISTORICAL•LAW) an estate of land, especially one held on condition of feudal service.", which makes sense... $\endgroup$ – Ludo Sep 24 '20 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Ludo the term is not commonly used here as far as I know, at least in reference to NASA facilities, so it sounds a bit weird to me too. The distinction may only be important at Stennis because it has the large buffer zone that NASA doesn't own; most NASA facilities I'm familiar with don't have such a zone. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Sep 24 '20 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ Considering this has to do with space, that alligator reminds me of Gena, the iconic Soviet character. $\endgroup$ – Panzercrisis Sep 25 '20 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ The term is still used commonly in land / property rights circles. $\endgroup$ – PhilippNagel Sep 25 '20 at 13:50

The answer seems to be that the term 'Fee area' is to do with the land ownership. This NASA document (PDF link) contains the critical clue: The 'fee area' is the area which the government holds in 'fee simple'. 'Fee simple' is a legal term in property law which applies in the US and other jurisdictions:

fee simple
n. absolute title to land, free of any other claims against the title, which one can sell or pass to another by will or inheritance. [...]

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, via thefreedictionary.com

So the 'fee area' is the area which the government holds in fee simple: it owns it outright, for ever. There will be some area outside the fee area which the government has some rights over but does not own in fee simple (probably those rights include things like 'make very loud noises and copious amounts of smoke' and 'transport rockets over').

There is also a useful Wikipedia page which gives a nice derivation of the term.

  • 'Fee' comes from 'fief' which is the mechanism by which land-ownership worked in feudal systems: a feudal overlord could grant a fief to their vassal, which is typically a bit of land which they could use in return for fealty: allegiance and usually some service.
  • 'Simple' means that it is unrestricted: the land can be passed down to descendants or ownership can be transferred by the vassal without the overlord having any say in this.

So if you own something in 'fee simple' you really own it, and that's what this term means: the fee area is the area the government really owns.

[This answer has overlapped with another one which gives much of the same information, I'm adding it because I think there is still stuff here which isn't in the other one, although it has little to do with space exploration.]

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a good explanation. And yes, I realise now that the question has little to do with space exploration, but I didn't know that when I asked the question. $\endgroup$ – Ludo Sep 24 '20 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Ludo questions about NASA facilities are clearly on topic. tfb, I wondered about the term "fee simple" but IANAL, thanks for this explanation. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Sep 24 '20 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble IANAL either, I've just been involved in some property transactions recently and I'm the kind of person who reads what the lawyers write in too much detail... $\endgroup$ – tfb Sep 24 '20 at 16:02

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