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Langley buffer area grows; so does the bill

HAMPTON, Va. — As a clear zone just beyond Langley Air Force Base's airstrip grows, so does the bill that city and state taxpayers are footing to keep development from encroaching on the military installation.

With the state's financial help, the city has spent almost $5.5 million to appraise, study and buy 74 acres along North Armistead Avenue, creating a so-called clear zone to buffer the base's flight path from private development. In doing so, the city is, at times, paying well above the assessed value of some properties, including one plot where the city paid almost $1 million more than the $992,600 assessment.

Clearing the area of development will protect people if an aircraft misses the air strip. It also sends a signal to Washington, D.C., that the city and state are serious about keeping Langley safe from future base closures, city officials have said.

The base is an economic boon for Hampton, estimated to inject more than a $1.2 billion annually into the Hampton Roads economy, according to an August 2010 land-use study created by Langley and the city.

The 214-acre clear zone is the area with the highest probability of aircraft crashes. The area was expected to cost $10 million to $12 million, according to the study.

The city has bought 35 percent of the needed land while spending 46 percent of its total estimated budget, according to information reviewed by the Daily Press.

The city is in negotiating with three additional property owners, according to Bruce Sturk, Hampton's director of Federal Facilities Support.

"We continue to have conversations with the remaining property owners, reiterating our desire to acquire the parcels in the (clear zone) for safety of our citizens and preservation of flying operations at LAFB," Sturk wrote in an update to City Council members. "As you know, we also remain hopeful the state will provide us with additional funding to continue to pursue the clear zone acquisition efforts." 

The nine parcels purchased to date include a 22-acre wooded tract along North Armistead Avenue assessed at $992,600. The city closed on that property May 1, paying the previous owner, Williamsburg-based Hornsby Investment Company, $1,983,000 for the land.

A property at 2935 N. Armistead Ave. is assessed at $80,600. The city bought the now-vacant land for $168,000. The half-acre lot had a house on it, although it was not clear when the home was demolished.

The city has spent $3.3 million on individual parcels to date and another $2.2 million for appraisals, wetlands and environmental studies and other administrative costs, according to information provided by Sturk.

Hampton Attorney Vanessa Valldejuli said the property values were determined by an independent appraiser and can vary from the assessed value because those appraisers can take a more thorough look at the properties.

"The assessor can't get on the property to look for wetlands or environmental hazards that might need to be addressed" with the appraisal, Valldejuli said.

City Manager Mary Bunting said the assessed values may also vary because localities are limited by the number of parcels assessors can individually inspect each year. The assessed value is set on Jan. 1, and property values can shift throughout the year.

"Oftentimes, the assessed value and the fair market value won't be the same unless there's a very stagnant market," Bunting said.

Still, the city regularly buys land for more than the assessed value, according to Daily Press reviews of property transactions.

Along Saunders Road, the city has paid more than 30 percent above the assessed value of some properties needed to widen the roadway.

The city also paid more than double the assessed value for properties along North Armistead Avenue and Freeman Drive for land needed to create a proposed recreational trail.

Bunting and Valldejuli said the city has no control or influence over the independent appraiser's results and the city is only buying property from willing sellers for the clear zone.

"Eminent domain will not be used here," Valldejuli said.

The city and Langley Air Force Base are vying for "Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Challenge" funds from the Department of Defense that can be used for buffer zones, the city manager and attorney said.

The federal dollars – known as REPI funds – are used to "advance innovative, cost-sharing buffer partnerships," according to a 2013 DOD announcement naming Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington, and Eglin Air Force Base, in Florida, as the recipients of $5 million for the program.

Since 2003, the REPI program has help protect 264,000 acres of buffer lands at 66 installations in 24 states, including Naval Air Station Oceana, according to the DOD.

As one door opens with the federal government, another may be closing with the state.

The city earmarked $3 million for the project in fiscal year 2014 and expected the state to match its commitment. In fiscal year 2015, the city budget includes $4 million — $2 million of which is expected to come from the state.

The General Assembly, however, has passed a budget that cuts all clear zone funding.

"This area can not afford to lose any segment of Langley Air Force Base ... we do not want Langley in any kind of BRAC situation," said Del. Gordon Helsel, during a June 5 interview.

Oceana's air protection and clear zones includes about 7,000 acres. To date, the city has acquired about 1,100 acres at a cost of $21 million, according to a June 2013 update published by the city of Virginia Beach.

Calls to the district office of Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton were not returned.

Hampton Councilman Donnie Tuck said the purchase prices are "concerning." Council members receive reports with overviews of the progress of projects such as the clear zone acquisitions.

"We don't look at the individual property transactions," Tuck said. "So that's part of it, but I also know that we're only going to buy as much property as the funding allows us."

Hampton employs an independent appraiser to determine the value of properties within the clear zone, said Susan Borland, the senior business development manager for the Hampton Economic Development Authority.

"In general, they're pretty satisfied with the outcome because we're working with an independent ... certified appraiser, so they know it's going to be done correctly," Borland said.

The city and state are splitting the cost to purchase 23 parcels that lay – wholly and partially – within the 214-acre clear zone. Wetland and other environmental studies are not performed on every parcel bought by the city, although they are done if the need is obvious, Borland said.

Sturk said eight property owners are not willing to sell their land.

"We're only dealing with willing sellers," Borland said. "That has been paramount from day one."
 

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