Better late than never on Fentress

With another round of Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission proceedings on the horizon, the last thing elected officials in Hampton Roads need to do is send a signal they’re wavering in their commitment to ensure the region’s military installations can operate unimpeded.

But that’s exactly what Chesapeake’s City Council did a month ago with a 5-4 vote to rezone land for a 31-home subdivision about 2-1/2 miles from Fentress Naval Auxiliary Field.

The decision ignored repeated appeals by the Navy to turn down the rezoning and was in direct violation of a pact the city and Virginia Beach made with the Navy to restrict development near Fentress and Oceana Naval Air Station after the last round of BRAC closures in 2005.

This week, fortunately, the council voted unanimously to correct its mistake and clarify regulations designed to prevent encroachment.

The reversal didn’t occur without some grumbling. “As much as it pains me to do this, as much as I believe in property rights, it is absolutely necessary,” said Councilman Rick West, who made the motion to reject the development – reversing the motion he’d made in February to approve it.

In the days leading up to the vote, several council members who had supported West’s original motion made baffling claims that they didn’t understand the Navy’s objections to the project.

Councilman Lonnie Craig, for one, said he probably would have voted against the development the first time “if someone from the base had talked to me and explained the importance of not having houses there.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by colleagues Ella Ward and Scott Matheson, who said the vote became more significant “in light of what we learned after the first vote.”

But Capt. R.N. Geis – commanding officer at Oceana Naval Air Station, whose pilots practice at Fentress – made it quite clear in a letter to the council last July why the Navy opposed the project.

Geis also appeared before the council on the night of its February vote to explain the Navy’s concern. He noted that it was the first time in a decade that a Navy official had to appear before a local council to speak against a project.

In addition, the city’s planning staff and Planning Commission both had recommended against approving the project, specifically citing the Navy’s opposition.

And, on the night of the February vote, Mayor Alan Krasnoff – who was on the council during the 2005 BRAC proceedings, when closing Oceana nearly became a reality – reminded the council of the city’s vow to avoid further encroachment and the devastating loss the region could face.

The council did the right thing this week when it reversed its vote. But for council members to claim they didn’t understand the Navy objections is disturbing.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, one of many state and federal elected leaders to urge the council to reverse its vote, recently named Adm. John Harvey, retired head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, to help prepare Virginia for future BRAC proceedings. It appears he’ll need to spend considerable time educating some Chesapeake officials.

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