By Sue Lindsey: The Associated Press
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Navy has found no better location for a master jet base on the East Coast than Oceana Naval Air Station, members of a commission considering closing the installation were told Monday.
Accompanied by Virginia officials, four members of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission took a helicopter tour of the Virginia Beach base Monday morning to view neighborhood encroachment, then met with Navy officers on the ground.
Anthony Principi, chairman of the nine-member BRAC Commission, said afterward that Oceana was added to its list of possible recommendations for closure because a Pentagon official had told the panel that a new master jet base would best serve the Navy’s long-term needs.
“This is a very serious issue,” Principi said.
However, Rear Adm. Steve Turcotte, commander of the five-state Mid-Atlantic Region, and base officers on Monday assured the BRAC commissioners that after thorough research the Navy remains committed to Oceana, state officials said.
“The Navy said loud and clear today that there is no better location than Oceana on the East Coast,” Gov. Mark Warner said.
The message should be reinforced when the chief of naval operations appears at the commission’s hearing on Oceana in Washington, D.C., later this week, said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who has led Virginia’s effort to keep the base open.
The Navy’s research even extended to bases operated by other branches of the military, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., said, adding that the problem of neighborhood encroachment is not unique to Oceana.
“One of the great things about this (base) is the open air space,” he said, referring to the nearby ocean.
Oceana was not on the list of bases that the Pentagon recommended for closure or realignment in May, but the commission took the unusual step of adding it last month. Commission researchers said neighborhood development was encroaching on pilots’ ability to practice taking off and landing at all hours.
A Navy aviator told the BRAC commissioners Monday that development around Oceana has resulted in slight changes in training for aircraft-carrier pilots but they do not affect practice landings, Gov. Warner said.
If Oceana survives this round of BRAC actions, its future will depend on support from the community, Sen. Warner said. “It’s going to be a challenge,” he added.
“This will be a wake-up call for the people of this region,” said Samuel Skinner, a BRAC commissioner. “They will need to cooperate with the military.”
Virginia has taken steps to ensure that is the case, Gov. Warner said, noting the General Assembly has passed legislation requiring that the military be informed of development proposals close to bases.
Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf outlined steps the city would take to help preserve Oceana, its largest employer, including asking developers to seek the Navy’s advice on the feasibility of their plans.
Any decision regarding Oceana’s fate could have implications for Cannon Air Force Base in eastern New Mexico.
Last month, Principi asked whether the Pentagon had considered relocating the Master Jet Base at Oceana to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and moving planes assigned to Moody to Cannon.
At the time, Principi said Cannon, which in on BRAC’s list of proposed base closures, appeared to have plenty of space and the right facilities to accommodate some of those planes. Cannon boosters also have suggested realigning Oceana as a way to keep Cannon open.
Oceana, with a military and civilian staff of nearly 17,000, is home to about 140 F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets and about 50 F-14 Tomcats.
While local and state officials are lobbying to keep Oceana open, the base has critics in the neighborhood.
Hal Levenson, a spokesman for Citizens Concerned About Jet Noise, said he would have liked to show the BRAC commissioners a shopping mall and two elementary schools that are in Oceana’s flight path.