- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

NORFOLK — Confused and a little overwhelmed by a six-month reprieve for Oceana Naval Air Station, Virginia officials yesterdaybegan sorting out how — or whether — to try to keep it as a master jet base.

Citing safety concerns from urban encroachment, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission took an unorthodox approach to Oceana. Rather than voting to have it open or closed, commissioners gave officials six months to take steps to cut encroachment and acquire property in areas with the greatest accident potential.

At the same time, the commission called for preparations to reopen Cecil Field in Florida, which had sought to replace Oceana.

“We don’t know what the BRAC folks intended,” said Art Collins, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. “Florida is just as confused as we are.”

In addition, the federal commission asked the Navy to begin planning for a new master jet base.

Virginia Beach may not have authority to condemn the property around Oceana and would need action by state lawmakers, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Warner said.

And if the city does proceed with property condemnation, the actions could be costly to taxpayers, even if it gets regional and state aid.

The accident zone includes an estimated 1,800 homes that had an assessed value in 2004 of $268 million. The cost of acquiring the property would be much higher, city planning official Tom Pauls said yesterday.

He said planners were in the process of determining how many businesses in the area would have to be acquired as well.

Virginia Beach officials last week announced joint plans with the state to spend $182 million over 20 years to block development around Oceana in an effort to persuade the BRAC Commission to spare the base.

The commission specified that $15 million a year be spent on acquiring property around the base.

And condemnation might not be popular. Strong resident opposition earlier this year prompted Virginia Beach officials to back off from a task force’s suggestion that the city acquire property in the accident zone.

“The city realizes that this part of the BRAC vote is very unsettling for homeowners,” city spokesman Chuck Applebach said.

On the other hand, closing Oceana would be a blow to the Hampton Roads region, which would lose about $1.7 billion, or about 2.6 percent of its gross product, said Old Dominion University economics professor Gilbert Yochum.

The base is Virginia Beach’s largest employer and has a civilian and military staff of about 12,000 people, but Mr. Yochum said the total jobs lost would number 19,000.

The military typically phases out bases gradually, so the loss probably would be spread over several years.

“It would literally be a drag on the economy for the next four years,” Mr. Yochum said.

The region’s economy is strong and would spring back, he said, but the effect on the military could last longer.

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