The federal government is all but forcing Virginia Beach to condemn private property in order to keep Oceana Naval Air Station, home to the Navy’s fighter/attack squadron of F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets. But this isn’t some ugly twist on the Kelo eminent-domain case.
For years, Virginia Beach has mostly ignored legitimate Navy concerns that its pilots could crash in residential areas under development near the base. But the city has chosen to let development proceed apace and — though it certainly did not intend to — heightened the danger by allowing ever-larger structures and increasing population density. So the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission has now put the city in the regrettable position of having to choose between seizing 37 acres of developed land or losing the station. The question isn’t whether land should be condemned: There are good national-defense and safety reasons to do it. It’s whether federal, state or local government should condemn the property, who should pay for it and how much “injured” parties should be compensated.
In one sense this is a better problem than the one Virginia Beach almost had to deal with. Earlier this year, the BRAC panel recommended closing Oceana and considered moving its fleet to Florida, prompting a scramble of lawmaker and lobbyist activity to prevent the move. A few months ago, the Navy announced it considered Oceana a vital facility, and the base commission — an independent entity created in 1988 to make the contentious business of base closings less contentious — has since offered a compromise: Stop development in high-risk areas, and the station can stay.
Some in Virginia Beach are crying foul over having to choose, and in some respects this is understandable: Cost estimates run in the quarter-billion dollar range, and the restrictions seem likely to harm economic development.
But this is precisely the type of clash anyone who noticed the burgeoning development could have predicted. It’s hard for local lawmakers to say “no” to developers, and that’s just as true near long-standing military sites as it is elsewhere. But that’s no reason to put people’s lives in jeopardy, or impede the Pentagon’s plans. The Navy has owned the Oceana site since the 1940s and has used it as a major base since the 1950s. Virginia Beach can’t say it wasn’t aware of the problem.
On Dec. 20, the Virginia Beach City Council will vote on a compromise plan they hope will satisfy the BRAC commission’s demands. According to residents, the plan does not require any property owners to lose their homes, though the inclusion of an emergency property-seizure measure suggests either of two future possibilities: Taking land at some point down the road, or local pols’ attempting to hoodwink the BRAC commission with a false promise.
Should the federal government help Virginia Beach finance the project? Surely there is a rationale that it should help. But that could set a worrying precedent: Must the federal government bail out communities that ignore years of safety advice from the military? That’s a difficult argument to make.