Chesapeake may buy property near Fentress air strip

By Jeff Sheler
The Virginian-Pilot


Leon Yoder and his siblings were second-generation farmers who for years worked dusty fields their father once owned. Navy fighter jets from Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field would screech by just above the treetops.

“You get used to it,” the 64-year-old said of the frequent noise of jets taking off and landing.

From time to time, he said, the family has thought of selling the 180 acres they now lease to another farmer.

None of the six siblings or their children are interested in farming it themselves, Yoder said. “And the fact is, none of us is getting any younger.”

But with the noise and city restrictions on new residential development near Fentress, prospects for selling the property are limited, Yoder admits.

That could soon change.

The City Council is expected to vote next week on a new program to use about $1 million in state matching money to buy property and development rights to prevent encroachment on the practice landing field.

It’s the latest step the city has taken in the wake of a debacle last year when the council approved and then rescinded a zoning request near Fentress that would have permitted a developer to build 31 houses on Mount Pleasant Road.

The reversal came after the Navy, Virginia Beach and state officials objected to the zoning change, saying it violated a commitment the city made in 2005 to protect the air strip from encroachment.

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

The new land-acquisition program, similar to one in Virginia Beach, would build on a five-year effort by the city to buy property near Fentress with partial funding from the Navy.

Since 2008, the city has spent about $4.3 million on purchases involving hundreds of acres, most of it undeveloped wetlands along the flight path between Fentress and Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

The city has recouped about $1.8 million from the Navy in exchange for restricted-use easements on the property.

Last summer, the City Council extended that arrangement for another five years.

Under the new program, property owners within the designated area could apply to have the city buy their land or purchase an easement restricting development rights.

Prices would be negotiated based on real estate appraisals. The city and 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.

City Manager James Baker said the option of buying land outright or acquiring easements would give both the city and property owners more flexibility.

Some farmers, he said, may wish to keep their land in the family but would be willing to accept development restrictions for a negotiated fee.

It also would be an attractive alternative for the city, he said.

“It’s really not in our interest to get a whole bunch of land that we have to cut the grass and take care of if we can just get a restricted use,” Baker said.

Yoder said he is eager to learn more once the program becomes official.

“I definitely plan to talk with the family about it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yoder said, he’s not giving up entirely on the possibility of selling to a developer, even if noise poses a potential obstacle.

“When folks move into the area, some say the noise is bad at first, but then they adjust to it,” he said.

“A lot of folks would rather have that than congestion and neighbors right on top of you. It’s a trade-off some of us are OK with.”

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