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The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

Living With A Noisy Neighbor


18 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

PENSACOLA, Fla. The Hip Pocket Deli, a mom-and-pop eatery on the outskirts of this Florida Panhandle city, breathes and eats Navy.

Located near Navy Boulevard, a mile from Pensacola Naval Air Stations main gate, its walls and ceiling are plastered with flags and posters touting all things military.

Owner Chris Varazo, a muscular, pony tailed Greek who dishes up grouper subs and fist-sized meatballs, figures 90 percent of his customers wear a military uniform. When Escambia County leaders approved a plan to curb new housing developments pressing in on the air station, he welcomed it.

In an era of base closings, Varazo said, he favors anything to keep the Navy brass happy.

If they ever shut down, this town would dry up, he said. Why do something that bites the hand that feeds you?

Fifteen months after Escambia County adopted recommendations from a land-use study to preserve the bases future, Virginia Beach is waging a similar battle to maintain Oceana Naval Air Station.

The Virginia Beach City Council will hold a public hearing today to gauge reaction to 24 recommendations to buffer Oceana. They range from land purchases and development restrictions to tougher real estate disclosure for home sales and rentals. The council could vote by late February on the proposals, part of a larger regional land- use study.

Many of Virginia Beachs ideas were included in the Escambia County study. Defense officials view the Pensacola report as a model of how communities can balance economic growth with the training needs of military bases.

At Pensacola, Navy officials worried that the creeping growth of pricey homes near the busiest runway would spark noise complaints, expose residents to the risk of jet crashes and jeopardize the base.

But local leaders in Florida said the noise levels and development there pale in comparison to what surrounds Oceana. They say Virginia Beach where some 140,000 people live in jet-noise zones is an example of what they dont want to become.

We were sitting here saying, Holy cow, we never want to end up in a situation like that, said Vann Goodloe, a Chamber of Commerce official.

Capt. John M. Pruitt, Pensacolas commanding officer, has flown in F-14 Tomcats at Oceana and commanded an E-2 squadron in Norfolk. He lived in Virginia Beachs Lago Mar neighborhood until 1999.

I dont want to say Virginia Beach is too far gone, Pruitt said, but its way down the road from where we are. Pensacola, in my opinion, cannot envision itself without the Navy. Im not sure Virginia Beach feels that way anymore.

Pensacola and surrounding Escambia County are military-friendly.

Its a sprawling, working-class community that calls itself the cradle of naval aviation. It has beaches lined with palms and sugary white sand on the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1825, President John Quincy Adams commissioned a Navy yard on the air stations current site a finger of land jutting into Pensacola Bay. The Navy opened the countrys first air base there in 1914, nearly three decades before Oceana was born. It had eight planes.

Today, the station is home to the Blue Angels, the Navys aerobatic flying team. The Blues are revered. They share a place on the county seal and are used as a marketing tool by countless businesses, such as the Blue Angel Taxi company.

The Chamber of Commerce lists the military as the areas top industry. In a county of about 320,000 residents, some 30,000 are military retirees and 20,000 are active-duty military and civilians who work at the air station.

The base and the county are still recovering from Septembers Hurricane Ivan. Earlier this month, hundreds of wind-damaged roofs remained covered with bright blue construction tarp.

The air station, now nearly back to normal, suffered about $650 million in damage and shut down regular training flights for about two weeks.

When planes started flying again, people applauded. It was eerie quiet after the storm for a lot of folks, said Air Force Maj. Brett Sanders, an aviation instructor in the bases joint training operations. Hearing us fly was part of the process of rebuilding, he said.

Around Pensacola, people are more likely to buy a military pilot lunch than complain about jet noise, Sanders said.

Even residents in new neighborhoods in crash zones and noise zones voice few complaints, according to Navy and county officials.

Unlike Virginia Beach, home to the 6,000-member watchdog group Citizens Concerned About Jet Noise, Escambia County does not have an organized group pushing to curtail noisy jets.

Pensacolas main mission is to train naval aviators and flight officers. While the Blue Angels fly F/A-18 Hornets the kind of window-rattling jets that draw the ire of some residents near Oceana the training jets and propeller planes flown daily at Pensacola are not as loud.

It can get noisy, but its the sound of freedom, man, said Allan Hawkins, after a Navy P-3 surveillance plane barrel ed over his house at about 600 feet.

Hawkins, a Vietnam veteran and retired Army Cobra pilot, lives in Herons Forest, a subdivision of about 130 homes built in the late 1990s off Gulf Beach Highway, against the air stations fence. In style and cost, the neighborhood resembles Virginia Beachs Indian River Plantation, off Indian River Road. Houses sell for $300,000 to $1 million.

Just to the north is a 30-home neighborhood called Blue Angel Lake, built eight years ago. Residents seem unfazed that their homes lie in the riskiest accident-potential zone, almost directly under the flight path of the stations main runway.

As military planes, including a huge C-130 cargo plane, repeatedly buzzed just beyond the treetops, resident Ron Moore shrugged.

Every place is an accident-potential zone, he said. When your numbers up, your numbers up. My wife and I said wed never be like those people who move in next to an airport and then complain about the noise.

Even so, the rapid growth alarmed the Navy. Much like Virginia Beach, the county was running out of vacant land, and developers were cashing in on previously undiscovered fields and woodlands along Gulf Beach Highway.

There were pockets of prime waterfront land. The wide, white- sand beaches of Perdido Key and a national seashore were close by. Entire neighborhoods sprang up.

From 1998 to 2003, the county issued more than 1,700 building permits for homes near the base. Worrisome growth also closed in on two outlying air fields that the Navy used to practice aircraft carrier landings and helicopter training.

The march of development was similar to that surging into Virginia Beachs transition area, a belt of land in the citys midsection, separating suburban sprawl from rural farms. Much of that area lies in high-noise zones under the flight path of jets flying between Oceana and Fentress Auxiliary Training Field in Chesapeake.

In Pensacola, the Navy expects flight activity and jet noise to increase around the base since the military closed its bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Strike groups will now stage training exercises in the Gulf of Mexico. If too many homes edge up to the station, the Navy fears, complaints would rise, putting the base at risk.

At some point I couldnt tell you when it becomes a problem you cant solve anymore, said Pruitt, the commanding officer. Youve got to give yourself a buffer for future missions and different airplanes.

The county’s move to protect the base appears to enjoy widespread support.

It seems the only people griping about it are the land developers, deli owner Varazo said.

The panel that wrote the land-use recommendations included two elected county commissioners, two Navy officers, two residents who lived in the fast-growing area and one member each from the real estate, home-building and business communities.

The broad representation was key, said Bill Dickson, a retired Navy captain and chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. It helps everyone to have a buy-in to what youve done if they were at the table, he said.

The study offered a few easy options to reduce potential conflicts. These have been adopted by the county commissioners:

One also proposed in Virginia Beach toughened real estate disclosures of noise and crash zones. Home buyers and renters in Pensacola must be told up front, before an offer is made. The zones must be disclosed in home listings and in marketing brochures.

Realtors welcomed the disclosure.

Theres nothing worse to find someones dream home and then find something objectionable like that come up, said Jinny Dancaescu, a Pensacola real estate agent. There are people with such a sensitivity to noise that its just not acceptable.

Another requires developers to sign over avigation rights air rights to the county before building new homes near the base. It guards the Navy against lawsuits like those filed by more than 2,000 property owners in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake who claim that the F/A-18 Hornets have increased jet noise and reduced the value and enjoyment of their property.

Virginia Beach has discussed using air rights as a voluntary proffer for developers wanting to build in jet-noise zones.

If the military has the right to fly over the properties, thats that, theyre locked in, said Karen Thompson, Escambia Countys chief of long-range planning.

The most controversial action came when the county created two new Airfield Influence Planning Districts, including one that extended a mile beyond the stations noise zones. Closest to the base, fewer new homes are allowed, even on land previously zoned for higher densities.

The action sparked a lawsuit by the company that developed Herons Forest. Developer Garrett Walton argues that the countys downzoning of the 26-acre parcel at Emerald Shores was a taking without compensation. The lands underlying zoning once supported more than 500 housing units, but the countys action reduced it to about 70, he said.

Walton said the countys study was flawed because it recommends buying land in the airfield districts, but theres no money to do so. Virginia Beach faces the same dilemma.

They did what was in the communitys best interest and to help the Navy out, Walton said, but if its good public policy, the taxpayers at large ought to pay for it. His lawsuit is pending.

Land owner Mickey Parker said he is preparing to sue the county. His 15-acre property lies off Gulf Beach Highway, near a yellow metal sign warning: High Noise Area Low Flying Aircraft. The county erected the signs to raise public awareness.

Parker said the new rules lowered the number of homes he can build on his property from 50 to five.

This was going to be part of my retirement or a legacy to pass on to my son, Parker said. Ive never sued anybody in my life, and it shouldnt have to come to that, but theyre not leaving me any other recourse.

Virginia Beach, burned in the past by attempts to downzone property, is not recommending it, said Robert J. Scott, the citys planning director.

In 1986, the Virginia Beach City Council rezoned residential land back to agricultural to halt development in its southern half. Courts overturned that action after land owners sued.

Escambia County never considered condemning land around the base. A proposal to do so in Virginia Beach has sparked a huge community outcry.

We try to stay as far away from that as possible, said Ruth Smith, a senior planner for Escambia County. It gets everybodys hackles up.

For now, the plan adopted by Escambia County has eased concerns that unchecked growth will threaten the bases future.

But, said Pruitt, I dont think we can ever relax and say, Problem solved.

So far, Escambia has bought one piece of property for a park, a 48-acre waterfront parcel on the verge of being developed with more than 80 homes. The Navy chipped in $500,000 of the $1.3 million purchase.

It was the first time the Navy used Defense Department money under a new federal law that lets the military work with localities, states and conservation groups to buy land near air bases.

Eventually, the county hopes to find more money to launch a land- buying program. One idea, Dickson said, is to dedicate part of the proceeds of a local sales tax.

Theres agreement that the studys outcome makes it more likely that planes will keep flying at Pensacola.

For local business owners such as Varazo, thats good news. Sporting a Blue Angels Marathon volunteer T-shirt, he echoed a common sentiment here:

Anything the military wants to do, he said, is fine with me.

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