NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY DAHLGREN, Va. — Sometimes, the only thing that residents along either side of the Potomac River recognize about the Navy base at Dahlgren is the noise and traffic it generates.
And that’s unfortunate, said a consultant working with officials from area localities and the military to determine the impact each has on the other.
“When [people] say they’d like Dahlgren to go away because they want to enjoy the peace and quiet of the river, they don’t realize the impact it has on the community,” said Mike Hrapla, a project manager for Matrix Design Group.
Matrix is helping to produce a Joint Land Use Study, or JLUS, a planning effort between the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren and the localities around it.
King George County is the leading partner in the group, which includes representatives from Colonial Beach and Westmoreland County and Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland.
One fact that can’t be denied is the money the Dahlgren base brings to the region.
The latest economic profile says the base is one of the largest local employers, pumping an estimated $1.1 billion into the economy.
As of January 2014, the base employs 7,600 workers. About 4,700 are civilians and another 2,500 are defense contractors.
About 40 percent of employees live in King George, while the rest commute from surrounding counties, according to the JLUS study.
Another recent report, the first County Tracker done by the National Association of Counties, sheds even more light on the Navy base’s financial firepower.
The study looked at the top five industries, by dollar value and share of county economic input, for each county in the nation in 2013.
The federal government was the top industry in three area counties: Caroline, King George and Stafford.
It accounted for 19 percent of the economy in Caroline and 20 percent in Stafford.
But its impact in King George was more than twice that. The federal government made up a staggering 45 percent of King George’s economy last year, according to the report.
No other county in Virginia had a higher percentage of its economy coming from the federal government, according to the County Tracker.
“That is a very significant component and in a lot of cases, it’s lost on the general public,” Hrapla said.
Hence, the need to involve residents in the JLUS, as it looks at future plans for development and growth by both the base and the communities around it.
The study group held its first public forum Tuesday night at the Dahlgren campus of the University of Mary Washington. About 45 people attended, but many were members of the policy committee (of county officials) or the technical advisory group (of agencies and officials with local knowledge).
Consultants distributed voting devices, which looked like small calculators, and polled audience members on their concerns about noise and vibration, as well as traffic around the base, housing availability and electromagnetic interference.
Then, the group opened the floor for questions. Both Nancy Schertler, who lives in Charles County, and Bob Fuscaldo, a former King George supervisor, were concerned about the impact Maryland development might have on the base.
Schertler said a marina is proposed within “spitting distance” of the end of the Navy’s live-fire range in the Potomac. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea and is even less enamored of plans to develop 900 acres in an adjoining area called Swan Point.
“I get my windows rattled a lot” as a result of firing on the river range, she said. “But I knew what I was getting into.”
Fuscaldo, a former commander at the Dahlgren base, has spoken publicly several times about need for the JLUS and to protect the base from the threat of future closure. He’s afraid that a development so close to the firing range would lead to more complaints from the Maryland side about noise from the Dahlgren base.
Earlier complaints about the booms from the base went to Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer “and that put Dahlgren on the bubble for closure” in 2005, Fuscaldo said.
“Seriously, just the noise complaints almost got this place closed.”
Two King George residents gave an interesting perspective on what life is like for people on either side of the Dahlgren gates.
Dreda Newman lives on Potomac Drive, in the house where she was born. She traveled the country in her younger years, then returned to King George to live with her mother.
The cost of housing in the area has gone up while her road has deteriorated. She believes both are because of the Navy base and the people who work there.
Meanwhile, Randy Grigg has worked off and on at the base for 20 years and has enjoyed the various amenities there: the pool, chapel, marina and movie theater.
“Those elements of the base are a valuable part of our community,” he said.
But they’re not open to everyone, Newman countered. “That’s for people who work on the base, so it’s not for the whole community.”
The JLUS team will hold three more public forums as it drafts its plan. More information is available at its website.