- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

VIRGINIA BEACH — Sam Reid and his family have a century-old white house next door to his father-in-law amid the towering oaks in Oceana Gardens.

His son lives across the street, and two doors down a 29-year-old lives in the house his great-grandfather built.

The houses of Oceana Gardens and other neighborhoods that skirt Oceana Naval Air Station are not new, not large and not fancy — Mr. Reid estimates the going prices lately at no more than $200,000.

But the residents of these homes, which are among thousands that a federal base-closing commission wants condemned because they lie next to the Navy airfield, don’t measure their value only in dollars. The closeness of family and lifelong friendships, they say, makes them priceless.

“You couldn’t pick a better neighborhood,” said Daniel Bolinaga, Mr. Reid’s two-doors-down neighbor. When he got married in April, everybody on the street came to the wedding.

A 1906 plat of the neighborhood shows the layout of the lots as they are today. Most of the houses were built at least 50 years ago.

“They talk about encroachment,” said Mr. Reid, president of the Oceana Gardens Coalition Civic League, which includes four neighborhoods totaling more than 650 homes. “We were here first.”

Mr. Reid’s father-in-law moved into his house in 1943, the same year the Navy commissioned a swampy area nearby for the airfield. The jets of Oceana Naval Air Station arrived in the 1950s, and the neighborhood embraced them.

Mr. Reid apologized when screaming jets interrupted a midday telephone conversation three times. “We live like this, so it’s no big deal,” he said.

But the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided last month that having neighborhoods close to the Navy’s East Coast master jet base is, in fact, a big deal.

The commission declared that the jets will move to Florida unless state and local officials take steps to reverse development around the urban base. And the “unless” conditions are making local officials swallow hard.

To meet the base commission’s demands, the city will have to acquire all the property in the most accident-prone zones around the base. That’s about 3,000 homes, worth more than $400 million, as well as businesses and churches. One church is almost 200 years old.

City officials have until March to get the process under way, and Gov. Mark Warner has pledged the state’s financial help to meet a requirement that $15 million a year be spent to acquire property. In addition, state law would have to be changed to condemn the property.

To keep Virginia officials on their toes, the federal commission at the same time told Florida to make plans for reopening Cecil Field near Jacksonville, closed in 1999 when the F/A-18 Hornets moved to Oceana.

U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, fought furiously to keep Oceana open and accused the panel of overstepping its bounds. But he and Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said last week that they would not try to persuade President Bush to alter the report. Mr. Bush endorsed the report Thursday.

Virginia Beach and state officials are seeking legal advice on the demands. The governor has said he is committed to keeping the Navy’s master jet base at Oceana, fearing that if the jets move south, some aircraft carriers at Norfolk Naval Station could follow.

Oceana is Virginia Beach’s largest employer, with nearly 12,000 military and civilian personnel. The federal commission didn’t order Oceana closed if the jets are moved, but the city hasn’t determined exactly how many jobs would be lost.

Mayor Meyera Oberndorf has suggested that the city might be able to meet the commission’s annual $15 million minimum purchase requirement by just buying from willing sellers.

That would enable longtime residents to stay in their homes, she told fellow council members last week. Others were not sure that approach would pass muster, and Mr. Reid didn’t like the idea.

“They’ll turn the neighborhood into Swiss cheese,” he said. “Who wants to live like that?”

Members of the federal commission said they were concerned about the safety of the residents and the pilots who are unable to practice takeoffs and landings exactly as they would on aircraft carriers.

“We live at the end of the runway,” said Ted Campbell, who recently moved back to the Bartow Heights house where he grew up to help care for his 87-year-old father. The neighborhood children knew all the airplanes by name and would run to the edge of the neighborhood to watch them land. “We never thought about a plane crashing.”

The Navy has objected to dense development around the base, but jet crashes have been rare. The last one neighbors could remember was in the 1980s, when one went down on a highway.

“Nobody here even has a problem with the jets,” Mr. Reid said. “They’re not concerned with the noise, they’re not concerned with the safety.”

What the 200 residents who showed up at a recent council meeting are concerned about is losing the sense of community built up over generations.

“They can’t possibly put us anywhere that we’re going to have the relationships and the neighbors that we have,” Mr. Reid said.

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