Earlier this year, the Navy warned Norfolk that a banquet hall seeking to open in Ocean View was in a part of the city where planes taking off from and landing at Norfolk Naval Station were most likely to crash if something went wrong.
The message was clear: Don’t let the hall open there.
The City Council scoffed, approved Elegant Occasions’ location anyway and drew the ire of a state official who is warning there could be major consequences.
The conflict is nothing new. Virginia Beach for decades approved housing developments and businesses over Navy objections that they were under the flight paths of fighter jets from Oceana Naval Air Station. From 1975 to mid-2004, the City Council ignored Navy pleas in nearly three out of every four votes.
That came to a screeching halt in 2005 when Oceana was placed on a list of bases the Navy wanted to close because of such encroachment.
“It would have been absolutely devastating,” Virginia Beach Deputy City Attorney Rebecca Kubin said.
The Navy planned to move Oceana’s jets to Florida, but stopped after the city agreed to a series of changes.
Virginia Beach rewrote its zoning ordinances and spent $129 million buying up 2,347 acres near Oceana. The efforts were hailed as a national model, and last year the city declared the program a success that helped save one of the region’s economic engines.
Similar efforts have been made in Chesapeake near Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, where since 2014 city officials have spent $3.8 million buying 106 acres. The city also has started backing off when the Navy complains about permitting new developments near the airfield where fighter jets simulate landing on an aircraft carrier.
Hampton has spent $4.3 million since 2013 buying 17 properties near Langley Air Force Base.
But Norfolk hasn’t spent any money buying properties near the naval base’s Chambers Field, where some nearby homes have been around since the 1920s.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Defense Department determined that specific zones within about 7,000 feet of a runway were where crashes were most likely to occur, and began issuing guidelines about what types of land uses near airfields were compatible with military operations. By then, the 1,300 acres of mostly residential land in Chambers Field’s crash zones were built out.
Following the scare at Oceana, Norfolk in 2005 approved a plan to limit development by essentially not allowing new land uses near the base that would increase the number of people on particular parcels. A 2009 Navy study noted there are “major existing compatibility concerns” around the Norfolk airfield and the “Navy and the city of Norfolk should continue to place high priority on these as encroachment concerns in the future.”
Yet in February the City Council permitted the banquet hall to open in a building in a crash zone that used to house a bicycle shop and take-out cafe. The approval came over objections by the Navy and city staff, the City Planning Commission and Mayor Paul Fraim.
“This one incident may seem insignificant in the development of things at Ocean View,” Fraim warned during a city workshop. “But if the Navy starts to discern a pattern of development that appears to be a creeping encroachment toward their naval installation – that’s what happened at Oceana.”
Norfolk council members who supported Elegant Occasions’ application said they did so because they believe there’s an inconsistency with what is allowed where and why, and noted that city staff didn’t tell the owner her business was incompatible until she was months into the process.
“This is something that may have a meeting on a Tuesday night and not have anything else until a Saturday,” Councilman Andy Protogyrou, who voted in favor of the application, said at the February workshop. “That’s how I see this as a being different.”
City spokeswoman Lori Crouch said in an email that the city has worked to scale back or move two proposed apartment projects out of crash zones, including a potential development at the former Ramada Inn near the Ocean View Golf Course.
But Norfolk’s most recent decision quickly set off alarm bells for retired Adm. John Harvey, the former commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Commandwho is now Virginia’s secretary of veterans and defense affairs. Harvey was part of a state commission in 2013 that recommended Virginia advocate for another round of base closures because the state was in a good position to gain personnel through that process.
But Harvey said the council’s recent vote now puts Norfolk at risk. Even if Congress doesn’t authorize more base realignments and closures – referred to as BRAC – Harvey said the Navy could still move its planes and helicopters out of Norfolk if it needs to cut costs and doesn’t like the way the city does business.
“The Navy could exist without Chambers Field,” Harvey said in an interview. “All the Navy’s Growlers are homeported at Whidbey in Washington, so we’ve broken the model that you have to have some of those squadrons on the East Coast. You could easily do the same thing with the E-2 squadrons.”
Chambers Field is home to squadrons of the E-2C Hawkeye, recognizable by the large radar disc attached to the upper fuselage. The airfield also is home to another turboprop, the cargo-carrying C-2A Greyhound, as well as MH-53 Sea Dragon and MH-60S Seahawk helicopter squadrons.
Harvey said the planes could move to Washington state or California, and the helicopters could go to an air station in Jacksonville, Fla.
“If we do it right, Virginia is going to be absolutely unassailable whatever process comes up in the future,” Harvey said. “The only wounds we’ll have will be self-inflicted.”
The Navy declined to respond to Harvey’s comments or say whether it has contingency plans to move aircraft. While the Navy has plenty of its own infrastructure underneath flight paths, it also has taken steps to lessen risks.
The Navy in 2011 said Fleet Park Little League no longer could use a base field because it was under the planes’ flight path. The league had played there for more than 50 years and its removal drew a heavy outcry from the community.
Paul Evans, president of the Northside Civic League that encompasses neighborhoods where a crash most likely would occur, said he’s never heard anyone in the community complain about the risk. Chambers Field was commissioned in 1918.
“We realize we’re in that zone, and it’s just something that we live with,” he said.
When asked by Councilman Paul Riddick how approving the banquet hall would affect the Navy’s view of the city, Norfolk Naval Station’s commanding officer didn’t directly address it.
Instead, Capt. Doug Beaver said only that he viewed the council with “the utmost respect.”
“Your due diligence tonight is encouraging,” Beaver said. “I think all the issues are on the table.”
After Elegant Occasions’ application was approved, city staff said they would work with the business owner about the possibility of moving with city assistance. City spokeswoman Crouch said in an email this week that staff recently met with the owner and “it went well.”
Craig Quigley, the executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, said it’s important the issue is addressed so the wrong message isn’t sent to the Navy.
“It plants a question in the mind of the Navy in this instance: ‘Well, gee, I thought we had an agreement here,’ “ said Quigley, who works to attract, retain and grow federal facilities.
“If every day you tried the very best that you can if you’re the commonwealth or Virginia Beach or Norfolk or Quantico — every day you do what you can and needs to be done to eliminate any obstacle, barrier, anything that sub-optimizes the effective use of what that installation was there to do in the first place — if you can make that a regular pattern of behavior, then when the day comes there is a BRAC, you are completely ready for it.”
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