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Can a military base-closing round help Virginia?

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — In a surprising turnaround, a state commission charged with protecting Virginia's military assets wants to invite another federal base-closing round, something congressional leaders have opposed for several years running.

The Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities, which released its report Monday, said Virginia could stand to gain more than it loses by embracing BRAC, which stands for Base Realignment and Closure.

It cites two reasons. First, a BRAC round would allow the Defense Department to consolidate assets within the state, closing facilities elsewhere. Virginia has a deep military infrastructure, including the world's largest naval base and a smattering of four-star command headquarters that could accommodate other functions.

Second, the military is marking the end of 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cuts are on the way with or without a formal BRAC process, and that could lead to downsizing without public input and with little notice.

The commission pointed to the 2010 move to close Joint Forces Command in Suffolk, a decision that blindsided state leaders and sent them scrambling for a response.

The commission was created last year by then Gov. Bob McDonnell, and its recommendations were finalized in October. Gov. Terry McAuliffe offered high praise for the report's authors and has embraced many of its recommendations.

But lobbying for a new round of BRAC hearings isn't something the governor's considering, according to press secretary Brian Coy. "I wouldn't say that's reflective of the administration's position," Coy said. "His position is that we should proceed as if one is happening. To be prepared."

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would push for another BRAC round in 2017. He acknowledged that Congress has stymied the administration's two previous requests, but hinted that cuts might be coming regardless.

"But if Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure," he said.

Opposition to BRAC is fierce within the Hampton Roads congressional delegation. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, heads the readiness panel on the House Armed Services Committee. Last year, he convened a hearing to raise objections to BRAC even before the administration proposed the idea.

He continues to oppose base closing because the military is still going through a transition. It's too early to look at infrastructure until the size of the fighting force is settled, he argues.

Agreeing was Sen. Mark R. Warner, who said Monday that another BRAC round is premature.

"As we draw down our overseas footprint, I believe we should look at overseas facilities first before even considering another BRAC round for domestic installations," he said.

Sen. Tim Kaine wants to look at the recommendation very carefully before commenting, a spokeswoman said.

Wittman and Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, have sharply criticized the last BRAC round in 2005 that closed Fort Monroe in Hampton and threatened Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach. It also resulted in a reshuffling at Fort Eustis that turned into a net gain of personnel.

Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting said late Monday that city staff was still reviewing the commission's report.

Bruce Sturk, Hampton's director of federal facilities support, said the report provides positive recommendations that will help localities "BRAC-proof" federal facilities if another round of military facility closures does take place.

"Anything we can do to prepare proactively is the right approach," Sturk said. "Everything that Hampton is doing, in my perspective, is moving us in the right direction."

Sturk said the city is earmarking funds for roadway projects surrounding Langley Air Force Base and buying land around the base to provide a clear zone for the base's flight path.

The 2005 BRAC that closed Fort Monroe signaled a final defeat for local officials who had spent decades advocating for the citadel to remain an active military installation.

The Army post was decommissioned in September 2011 but an Army caretaker team provides some maintenance on the property. The Army transferred more than half of the property to the state in 2013.

The Fort Monroe Authority now rents apartments and homes on the property to civilian tenants. Just days before leaving office, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell approved a master plan that outlines land uses for the property.

An environmental cleanup estimated to cost close to $60 million is continuing on the property, though, and Army caretakers have estimated that could continue for years. The state will have to contribute millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future to help maintain the property and provide services.

Congressional leaders slammed the 2005 BRAC for overselling how much money it would save. A Government Accountability Office report said the 2005 BRAC cost more and saved less than original estimates.

Daily Press reporters Travis Fain, Dave Ress and Robert Brauchle contributed to this story.

BRAC: Bring it on?

Here is the text of the Recommendation 1 regarding base closings released Monday by the Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities:

"Proactively advocate for another BRAC. The Commission is of the opinion that Virginia is in a position to gain more DoD activities as a result of BRAC consolidations to existing installations and activities within the Commonwealth. A BRAC will provide DoD the opportunity to achieve a number of efficiencies by consolidating existing activities located outside the Commonwealth with existing installations and activities already in the Commonwealth. Without a BRAC, it is the view of the Commission that the Department will continue to reduce or close commands without public comment and without providing notice of its actions. The elimination of the U.S. Joint Forces Command is an example of the type of "back-door" BRAC that the Commonwealth can expect without another BRAC."
 

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