A chance to fix city’s decision on Fentress

The Virginian-Pilot

Tonight, the Chesapeake City Council is poised to invest in the future of the Navy in Hampton Roads.

A program similar to the partnership Virginia Beach and the state formed nearly a decade ago to buy land around Oceana Naval Air Station has been proposed for Chesapeake.

Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, where Navy pilots practice carrier landings, and Oceana, where the pilots are based, came perilously close to being closed during Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission hearings in 2005.

The Navy said development – and the resulting light – had made carrier landings hard to simulate. The Pentagon worried about the danger posed by so many people crowded so close to Oceana’s fenceline.

For decades, leaders from Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and the commonwealth had taken the presence of the East Coast master jet base for granted. The BRAC threat surprised local and state officials, who then promised to do everything possible to ensure that military installations could operate unimpeded.

For several years, state and local government seemed to follow through on those promises. Then Chesapeake – over strenuous Navy objections – last year approved a zoning request near Fentress that would have permitted 31 houses on Mount Pleasant Road.

After Virginia Beach, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and members of Congress voiced their displeasure, the Chesapeake City Council reversed its decision the next week.

Since that misstep, Chesapeake has entered into an agreement with the Navy to jointly review land-use proposals near Fentress to determine whether a proposed development is compatible with safety, noise and other restrictions.

The proposal the council will consider tonight would use about $1 million in local money, matched by the state, to buy property and development rights around Fentress.

As The Pilot’s Jeff Sheler has reported, Chesapeake has spent about $4.3 million since 2008 buying hundreds of acres, most of it undeveloped wetlands along the flight path between Fentress and Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

The new proposal would set up a process in which property owners near Fentress could apply to sell their land – or development rights – to the city.

As in Virginia Beach, prices would be negotiated based on real estate appraisals. Chesapeake and the state each would put up a little more than $1 million in the first year.

Eligible properties must be at least 6 acres, have clear title and be up-to-date on taxes. The city estimates about 140 parcels would qualify.

In Virginia Beach, the program has led to a much-improved relationship with the Navy and the slow reversal of decades of encroachment by surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. That effort has culminated with the Navy naming the city a model for how to deal with encroachment around a base.

Chesapeake has an opportunity to similarly improve its relationship with the military tonight.

With another round of BRAC proceedings on the horizon, the last thing elected officials in Hampton Roads should do is signal they’re wavering in their commitment to protect the Navy’s installations.

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