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The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

Navy To Take New Stand On Development Near Oceana ; Jet-Noise Problem Had Been Underestimates Senior Official Says


December 20, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

VIRGINIA BEACH-- Navy leaders have underestimated the public's tolerance for jet noise and now believe that the service should have taken a tougher stance years ago to discourage residential development near Oceana Naval Air Station, a senior Navy civilian told local officials Friday.

"We finally realized we were getting too many complaints," said Alan F. Zusman, director of base development for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington.

He added that the Navy's decision to brand further housing construction in high-noise zones incompatible with the base grows out of a desire "to protect our installations. We don't want to close NAS Oceana."

Zusman's comments, delivered to city officials and a council- appointed citizens task force, were the Navy's first detailed explanation of its tough new stand against development near Oceana and other air bases. The service had previously said housing was compatible with the bases if builders provided insulation and took other steps to muffle jet noise.

"The reality is, it's loud outside," he said. "Residential is not truly compatible."

Zusman is the author of the new Navy guideline. His explanation for it Friday mirrored the assessments of other former Navy officials and base-usage analysts who have been interviewed this week.

It also reflected the Bush administration's plan, to be formally released on Monday, to closely examine "the availability and condition of land, facilities and associated airspace" on and around bases, as part of the 2005 base realignment and closure process.

Military leaders generally have concluded - correctly - that as more homes, schools and stores are built near air bases, complaints about noise are "going to get worse," said Christopher Hellman, who tracks base-closing issues at the Center for Arms Control and Non- Proliferation.

At some point, growth reaches a point where it generates so many complaints that the military feels forced to alter flight paths, reduce hours of operation and take other steps that may make a base less useful, he and others suggest.

Such pressures already are being felt at Oceana, where pilots who stray from approved approaches or buzz nearby homes have been disciplined and controllers steer departing jets toward the Atlantic to limit the impact of noise as they climb to cruising altitudes.

The Navy voluntarily took those steps, and Rear. Adm. Christopher W. Cole, until recently the service's director of ashore readiness, said they've had no effect on Oceana's mission.

"We can do our training there," Cole said. "It is an effective, wonderful base."

A draft list of base-closing criteria circulated on Friday to members of Congress said the Pentagon also intends to consider the relative cost of operating bases and the suitability of each base to accommodate joint operations, among other factors. The proximity of other Army, Air Force and Navy bases to Oceana has long been considered one of the Beach installation's strong points in any base- closing calculations.

Privately, other Navy officials said the service's decision earlier this year to assign most of its East Coast F/A-18 Super Hornets to Oceana signaled a commitment to preserve the base through the 2005 closing round.

Zusman's comments suggested that the Navy still wants to keep the base. But Paul Taibl, an analyst at Business Executives for National Security, argued that the service's new stand on development can be seen as "fair warning" to city leaders that more growth will undercut Oceana's long-term security.

Taibl, whose group lobbies for a more businesslike military, suggested that the whole issue of encroachment - defined generally as anything that impinges on the military's freedom to use bases and training ranges as it sees fit - "has become a major concern of people in the Pentagon."

Since taking office in 2001, the Bush administration has tried to rewrite the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to ease provisions limiting military training on base lands or offshore ranges that also are home to rare wildlife or dolphins and whales.

The Navy's stance on residential development around domestic air bases reflects the same determination by the administration to protect base property for military uses, Taibl said

Taibl and other analysts also suggest that Navy leaders in particular are touchy on the subject in the wake of their experience on Vieques Island, a Puerto Rican outpost where the service was forced this year to give up a valued bombing range. The Navy largely ignored years of protests until the opposition generated enough political pressure to lead to its closure.

"It does sound like the guidelines have changed," said retired Navy Capt. William "Skip" Zobel, a Beach resident who was commanding officer at Oceana from 1999-2001.

Zobel spent a good part of his tour listening to complaints from Oceana's neighbors about noise and making adjustments aimed at lowering the decibel level without limiting base operations. The Navy sometimes expressed reservations about development and suggested ways to reduce the impact of jet noise but generally did not try to stop the building.

That was a mistake, Zusman said Friday. The Navy's past position sent a "mixed message. ? We just didn't do the best job of explaining it, and for that we'll take the hit for it," he added.

Zobel said he's "kind of baffled" by the military's new position. He argued that "some common sense needs to be put in" when the service evaluates local plans to develop high-noise zones. If the Navy previously acquiesced in the development of subdivisions in those areas, it's hard to understand objecting to others now, Zobel suggested.

Beach and business leaders worry that the new policy would disrupt redevelopment efforts in key corridors at the Oceanfront and plans for high-end developments in the Beach's transition area along the city's midsection.

City leaders told Zusman Friday that the tougher policy had rendered more than 20,000 households and some 92,000 residents as being "incompatible" with Oceana. Development proposals now opposed by the Navy are surrounded by development, making the projects hard to deny, they said.

At the same time, they said, they realized that approving new housing could put Oceana's future at risk.

"There's no easy decision," said Beach City Councilman Jim Reeve, who was among those meeting with Zusman on Friday. "We understand the need to prevent encroachment, but when applied on the ground, can we say it makes sense?"

Friday's meeting produced no plan to break the impasse, but Zusman acknowledged that "this is not a black and white issue. I think there's probably a way to reach a common framework here."

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