Jet base could be in play

Published 10:46 am Saturday, February 6, 2010

FRANKLIN—When Naval Air Station Oceana was built in the 1940s, it was designed as an Outlying Landing Field to support nearby Naval Air Station Norfolk.

During the following decade, Oceana — surrounded by farms and not under the same limitations for growth as NAS Norfolk — was expanded to serve as the East Coast Master Jet Base, a coveted designation that it still holds today while serving as the home base for 17 squadrons of fighter planes.

Part of its mission is to train the pilots of those planes, but that mission that has become more difficult over the years with the unchecked growth of Virginia Beach and neighboring Chesapeake. While the Beach enjoys an economic benefit from thousands of direct and indirect jobs tied to the base, some of its residents have been complaining for years about the jet noise.

Which begs the question: With Oceana as their guide, are the Navy’s proposals to build an OLF somewhere in Western Tidewater or northeast North Carolina merely the opening act of a major plan to move the East Coast Master Jet Base?

Some see that as a distinct possibility. Others do not.

The plans were there

The leading proponent of the concept of an OLF eventually transitioning to the Master Jet Base is William “Skip” Zobel, a 26-year Navy veteran and a former commander of Oceana.

Now retired and working as a field representative for the Norfolk office of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Zobel wrote an opinion piece on March 24 for the Web site, where he makes the case that an OLF will transition one day to a new Master Jet Base.

“If the Navy really wants to get serious about building another field, then they need to come out and say the site chosen will be their future Naval Air Station,” Zobel wrote. “Quite frankly, I think those plans were in the works when the site in Washington County (N.C.) was being considered. There were actual plans for the Washington County site to be the next Master Jet Base.”

Zobel added that the plans were “kept very quiet because the Navy knew the political climate was not right at the time. Sen. John Warner was too powerful for the Navy to announce that Oceana would one day move from Virginia, and the economic benefit of NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads is staggering and would upset many local politicians. Well, Sen. Warner has retired, but the area still reaps the benefit.”

The Navy, Zobel believes, has two options. The first would be to buy, and presumably demolish, homes around Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake — the current OLF that supports Oceana — thereby darkening the evening skies around Fentress and making training more realistic.

The other option would be to build a new Master Jet Base somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina.

“Use it as an OLF at first, and then transition it to a full operating base,” Zobel wrote. “The first option does nothing to help with surge operations, but so what? The second option will send the signal that economic benefit is coming to the area selected, and the noise issues around Oceana and Fentress will eventually go away.”

Zobel declined to comment for this story, other than to say that he stands by what he wrote in his column. He also declined to name any other Navy officials, either current or retired, who may have seen the Washington County plans.

‘Not in the cards’

Barry Steinberg is an attorney with the Washington-based law firm Kutak Rock LLP and represents five Virginia counties that are against the OLF.

He says he doubts that a new Master Jet Base will be coming to Western Tidewater.

“As the cards are played and laid on the table today, a Master Jet Base for the region is not in the cards,” Steinberg said. “It doesn’t exist.”

Steinberg suggests that there are two main reasons for this.

The first reason, Steinberg said, is that the Navy doesn’t believe it needs to replace Oceana, despite the conclusion of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission that “the future of naval aviation is not Oceana.”

Said Steinberg: “Everybody that has looked at this issue has, in essence, (told the Navy) ‘there is an elephant in your living room.’ The elephant is Oceana as a long-term, viable Master Jet Base. The Navy wants to tell me the elephant isn’t there. They say Oceana is fine.”

He adds, “I know you’ve got citizens in your community (asking) why aren’t we exploring this and keeping an open mind? Tell me what the open mind is when the party on the other side of the equation has said ‘I don’t need your Master Jet Base; I’ve got one and it works just fine for me?’ As long as the Navy sticks by its guns, I don’t know how I can enter into a meaningful dialog.”

Even if the Navy did announce that they want to replace Oceana, doing so would be problematic.

“Are they going to turn on a dime and say Oceana really isn’t fine?” Steinberg asked. “It would be interesting to watch them try and explain that one, of why they did the flip.”

He added that Western Tidewater wouldn’t be guaranteed Oceana’s replacement.

“They would look at alternatives,” Steinberg said. “There is no guarantee it would come to your community. (The Navy) will probably say ‘if you take the OLF, we certainly would give serious consideration to putting a Master Jet Base out there.’ But you’re not going to get a commitment. You’re not going to know for a long time whether you would get the Master Jet Base.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Steinberg said a second roadblock to building a new Master Jet Base anywhere is getting the money for the facility, which could cost upwards of $3 billion, appropriated from Congress.

“I don’t believe that there is presently in the Congress a will to go out and take a couple of billion dollars and sinking it into a new Master Jet Base,” Steinberg said.

He cautions that if a community were to “give up objections to the OLF now, you are now dependent on a congressional appropriation. You’re talking about a couple of billion dollars, minimum. When will Congress appropriate that money and what assurance does a local community have that when they approve the OLF that the Master Jet Base is coming? Absolutely none.”

For the love of money

Then there is a private option: A federal program called Real Property Exchange, or RPX.

Under that program, a private developer could theoretically purchase the land needed for a new Master Jet Base from willing sellers, build the facility to Navy specifications, and then swap the new base for the valuable land that Oceana sits on in Virginia Beach. Landowners would need to be willing to sell, because a private developer would not have the powers of eminent domain.

“I am not aware of anyone ever discussing this,” Steinberg said of RPX. “But there are reasons you would do it. The Navy would get a 21st Century base, they would get it out of a congested area, it wouldn’t be crammed down the throats of people who don’t want it and you don’t have to ask Congress to authorize the funds.”

But he warned that there were a few pitfalls to the RPX idea.

“I don’t know what the (real estate) value of Oceana is, or how much it would cost to build a new Master Jet Base,” Steinberg said. “The private sector may say that the numbers are too far apart. The numbers may not work. But they might.”

Any shortfall in funds between the cost of building a new Master Jet Base and the real estate value of Oceana to compensate a private developer would have to be appropriated by Congress, Steinberg said.

He added that elected leaders at the state and national level could nix the idea of closing Oceana.

“Virginia Beach is the largest city in the state, with thousands of voters, and what they say is going to matter a whole lot more than what Western Tidewater says,” Steinberg said. “Sen. (Jim) Webb, Sen. (Mark) Warner and Gov. (Bob) McDonnell don’t want to disturb the status quo.

“There are two huge issues here — jobs and national security. Who wants to run for re-election accused of not supporting those two?”

He adds, “The commonwealth would do well to think about this, because if they don’t get ahead of the curve on this, the Master Jet Base doesn’t necessarily stay in Virginia. But, politically, I don’t know if we have the will to do that kind of thinking.”

Another problem: Virginia Beach will fight to keep Oceana and the jobs it provides.

“Virginia Beach is a destination tourist mecca,” Steinberg said, but added that even though the real estate under Oceana would go back onto the Beach’s tax roles if it became available for development, “they don’t want to lose (the base) and they will fight it.”

“They don’t want to lose 12,000 jobs in Hampton Roads. They don’t love ‘the sound of freedom’ as they call it. They love the money.”

The Beach comes out swinging

Virginia Beach officials clearly have that on their mind. Twice during the last two weeks, the city’s assistant city manager, Bob Matthias, testified against proposed legislation in the state General Assembly that threatened to derail the OLF.

“I talked about how important Oceana was to the economy of the Commonwealth,” Matthias said Friday, adding that he mentioned “the impact of $1.3 billion (on the local economy), 12,000 very good-paying jobs and how the Navy was committed to Oceana.”

Matthias said he spoke before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on Jan. 26 and the House of Delegates Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns on Thursday.

“Virginia Beach had downzoned one-third of our land area to maintain Oceana,” Matthias said. “We have an excellent working relationship with the Navy. We spent about $78 million over the last five years buying up land around Oceana.”

Asked if there were fears among Virginia Beach officials that Oceana could possibly close, the East Coast Master Jet Base moved elsewhere, Matthias said “none whatsoever.”

“They’re not moving at all,” Matthias said. “The Navy is only going to buy 2,000 acres fee simple and then take an easement on another 10,000 acres or so. When they were looking at the Washington County site, they were going to buy 30,000 acres fee simple because they were indeed thinking of another Master Jet Base at that time.”

He added, “The Navy has no desire to move from Oceana and no need to move from Oceana. They have told us that repeatedly.”

Navy officials said they remained committed to Oceana and finding an OLF, nothing more.

“The Navy has no plans to move the Master Jet Base from Naval Air Station Oceana to any other location,” said Ted Brown, media relations officer for the Navy’s Fleet Public Affairs Office. “With the additional Outlying Landing Field, we expect Oceana to be viable for the foreseeable future.”

If not here, where?

Steinberg said he thinks the most likely scenario is for the East Coast Master Jet Base to eventually be relocated to what is currently Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, which is in Havelock, N.C.

“I think the more likely place that they would go is probably Cherry Point,” Steinberg said. “There are strong elements down there that want it. They would have to build a lot, but not as much as starting from scratch. It would certainly be cheaper, and you would be increasing the aviation noise in a community that already has aviation noise.”

He dismissed the idea of the Navy possibly reopening Naval Air Station Cecil Field, located just outside of Jacksonville, Fla.

“They won���t go back to Cecil,” Steinberg said. “Cecil is gone; that train left the station long ago. The community down there has done things that essentially make the Navy very unwelcome down there now. They have turned Cecil into other uses. It’s not viable.”

Asked if he think Zobel is accurate in his assertion that the Master Jet Base may have come to Washington County, N.C., Steinberg said yes.

“Skip was in a position to know what he knew,” Steinberg said. “He was in a position to see the documents and talk to the people who were in the planning side. If Skip tells you that he saw it, my reaction is he saw it and it existed.”

He added that he didn’t know if current plans for an OLF in Western Tidewater or northeastern North Carolina contained the plans to someday evolve into a Master Jet Base.

But he doubts it.

“I don’t think it is part of the current plan,” Steinberg said. “I could be wrong. I haven’t seen the documents. I’m not privy to internal Navy dialog and discussion and things like that. I’ve not seen anything.”

Local reaction

Local officials were divided over how likely a new Master Jet Base would be and whether the community would embrace it.

Franklin Mayor Jim Councill said Friday that the question of whether the Navy was looking to move the Master Jet Base had come up recently in “two separate conversations not related to each other” with two Navy admirals.

The mayor confirmed that Rear Adm. David Anderson — the Vice Commander for U.S. Fleet Forces Command and the Navy’s point man in getting the OLF built — was one of the admirals, but declined to identify the other.

“They have said that is not even a consideration, that the OLF is strictly the OLF and there is no interest at all in moving the Master Jet Base from Oceana,” Councill said. “They feel like Oceana will serve them well way into the future if they can meet their other needs with an outlying landing field.”

Councill said the admirals also dismissed the suggestion that the Navy ever seriously thought of moving the Master Jet Base to Washington County, N.C.

“The comment (the admirals made) was that was never the plan, that it was all a bunch of speculation,” Councill said.

Assistant Southampton County Administrator Jay Randolph concurred.

“Any talk of the military formulating a base out here would be very premature and somewhat speculative,” Randolph said. “I think a major military installation would be somewhat disruptive to the way of life out here.”

Randolph added, “We support our country, we’re very patriotic and we support our military and wish them the best of luck and success in all that they do. (But) there are appropriate places to have military bases, and there are some less-than-desirable places to have military bases. We probably fall in the second category.”

Anita Felts, who represents the Jerusalem District on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, said she didn’t think county residents would welcome the Master Jet Base.

“There would still be quite a bit of opposition, because that would destroy what we in this area have learned to love about living in Southampton County,” Felts said. “If the OLF comes in as unwanted as it is now and disrupts the communities, then there would be a lot of negativity out there.”

Mark Fetherolf, who represents Ward 6 on the Franklin City Council, said the Navy — and the federal government — would “do what was in their best interests, but that’s not necessarily what’s in our best interests.”

“We have people who are going to be unemployed or are going to be finding jobs outside of the area,” Fetherolf said. “If the Navy brings that in, then they’re going to bring in new people. But we have to be committed to the people here. We need to look after our own, so to speak.”

Asked if the pending closure of the International Paper Co. mill has an affect on the Master Jet Base issue, Fetherolf said, “It shouldn’t, if we stand on principle. But if we stand on economics, then it may.”

Franklin City Councilman Benny Burgess said it was up to the community to decide if the Master Jet Base was compatible.

“If it works, and the community feels like it’s something that we as a community could support, I’m in favor of it,” Burgess, who represents Ward 2, said Friday. “But I think it’s got to be something that the community says is something we really need to look at.”

Burgess added, “There is a huge concern that if you bring the Master Jet Base here that it’s not going to be ‘sweet little old Franklin and Southampton County.’ It’s going to be a huge influx of people and infrastructure, and our quiet little way of living is going to change. Some people will like that, and some people won’t.”