After sprawl threatened relocation, plan to keep Oceana deemed a success

By John Holland
The Virginian-Pilot


Predictions of doom bounced around City Hall in the summer of 2005 and landed on the front page in bold, desperate headlines. People were scared, and for good reason.

Oceana Naval Air Station and its 12,000 jobs were on the Defense Department’s critical list, threatened with closure in large part because the surrounding area had become too residential, too commercial and, ultimately, too dangerous: too dangerous for the fighter pilots who practiced landings and maneuvers that they’d use fighting two wars, and too dangerous for the residents who could be wiped out if anything went wrong on those training missions.

A pivotal part of Virginia Beach’s economy – and, by extension, the region’s – would vanish if the city didn’t act quickly and condemn and raze nearly 1,800 homes around the base, the Navy said. City staff and politicians came up with their own plan, one that by all measures was less blunt than eminent domain and more creative and ambitious.

It worked.

The city declared success last week, announcing a sharp and much less expensive shift in the decadelong effort to satisfy the Navy. It still will buy some property and keep zoning restrictions in place, but the days of the city and state spending $15 million a year to acquire land and buildings are over.

“I think we need to compliment the state for being our partners – they really stepped up – and the Navy was also a great partner,” said Mayor Will Sessoms, who wasn’t on the council at the time but has since led the city’s efforts to placate the Navy and win support.

“I want to applaud Meyera (Oberndorf, the former mayor) and the council who dealt with the situation; it wasn’t very pleasant. I would never guarantee anything, but we are certainly prepared for BRAC if they want to come.”

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission created by Congress pitted communities against one another as the government looked to save money by phasing out some facilities and combining others. In 2005, the commission announced its intention to move the only master jet base on the East Coast from Oceana to Cecil Field in Florida.


The state and City Council scurried for a way out, but local officials said they would never agree to the Navy’s order of condemning 1,800 buildings and kicking people out of their homes.

So deputy city attorneys Becky Kubin and Bill Macali began coming up with an alternative that would drastically change zoning in the area while offering residents palatable prices to voluntarily sell their homes.

“People flooded City Council and started petitions saying ‘Don’t take our homes,’ so we knew early on that couldn’t be the plan,” Kubin said last week. “The former city attorney, Les Lilley, called it ‘threading the needle’ because we had to find a way to respect property rights while stopping the encroachment.”

Money alone wouldn’t do that.

“We concluded that if we changed nothing else and we condemned the $15 million per year, every year, we might be making headways in one direction, but without zoning changes, nothing would get better,”

On Dec. 20, 2005, the council took a vote that prevented 1,300 potential incompatible uses in the area around Oceana, effectively banning most new construction.

“That ordinance alone would be more successful than if we had done 30 years of condemning and purchasing existing businesses,” Kubin said.

The city wanted to be fair to the landowners whose property was suddenly worth less. It began buying property at the full appraised value and gave other considerations, and hundreds of residents jumped at the chance to get out.

The existing homes and businesses were demolished, and in small sections of the Oceana Gardens neighborhood, the city allowed homes to be built after combining the lots and selling them to developers. Where before six homes were allowed, now only one would be built, the city said, keeping up the neighborhood while satisfying BRAC.

Since the plan’s inception, the city and state have spent about $127 million buying about 2,400 acres of property and homes around the base, splitting the tab down the middle. About $11 million has been recouped by selling easement rights to the Navy, and a small percentage of the land has been sold to developers who have built less dense housing in the region.

Many of the vacant lots have been sold to neighbors who have expanded their property for $1 per square foot. It builds up the neighborhoods and saves the city maintenance costs.

Doc Warren is in the process of buying a large parcel next to his home on Michigan Avenue. He’s lived there for 23 years and works at Oceana. He said he never considered selling when the city offered to buy.

“I raised five kids and a dog here, and my wife and I aren’t going anywhere,” Warren said Friday, pausing while fighter jets flew loudly overhead. In this part of town, such pauses are known as the “Oceana beer break.”

“They are building a new home across the street on that lot, and it will be nice to have a big new home there,” Warren said, picking up the conversation as soon as the planes passed.

The program garnered national awards from the Navy for Sessoms and recognition as a model program for the city. This year marks the first time the state is not pitching in to defray the costs. But that isn’t a problem, city leaders said last week, because the number of applications from citizens seeking to sell has dwindled to a handful each year.

The 2016 budget sets aside $2.5 million for purchases, and the city has shifted its aggressive pace to a “maintenance period” that will have it ready if BRAC makes another run at Oceana.

Jim McClure bought his new house two years ago, after his company, the Supervalu/Farm Fresh grocery chain transferred him from Minnesota.

“I really still get excited every time they fly over,” McClure said while sitting on a white rocking chair and watching an F-18. That means he gets excited a lot. “We used to vacation here a lot, and this house is on a big double lot, and we get to see the planes every day.”

The neighborhood has benefited from the program, and home prices actually fared better than in other parts of the city during the real estate slowdown. There is more work to be done, but the program has worked.

“There are still some vacant lots that we would like to see the city sell and get houses in there. At this point, it’s not about buying lots; it’s about selling them. That’s a good thing,” said resident Sam Reid, who has lived in Oceana for about 15 years and likes the changes.

“The new houses coming in are bigger because that’s how people want to live now,” Reid said. “There is still work to do, but it’s going in the right direction.”

Vice Mayor Louis Jones said that’s far more than anyone could have expected a decade ago when he and City Manager Jim Spore received a dismal reception when they met with the Navy and Congress.

“If you had been at that meeting, you would have thought that we were doomed, to tell you the truth,” Jones said. “To have the complete turnaround that we’ve had is just a credit to the staff and all of the hard work.”

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