Under the radar, officials work on protecting Langley AFB
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — For all the talk about deep cuts in defense spending, at least one matter appears shelved for now: another round of military base closings of the sort that shook Hampton Roads in 2005.
Del. Gordon C. Helsel Jr., R-Poquoson, said he does not feel like resting easy.
Helsel is urging Gov. Bob McDonnell to include $6 million in his upcoming budget to improve the clear zone adjacent to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. The city has pledged to match the state's commitment.
The concern is twofold: Shielding residents from a possible crash and shielding the Peninsula economy from another base closing. Setting aside money now for crash zone improvements would send a signal to Washington that the community is working to improve the area, Helsel said.
Langley is the only Air Force base in Virginia, and it pumps $1.2 billion into the Hampton Roads economy each year, according to a recent study. Helsel wrote to McDonnell this week asking for money to be included in the 2013-14 budget. The governor will formally introduce his spending plan in December.
"Langley is too valuable to our Peninsula economy to stand by and wait for an untoward federal action," the letter states.
The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure commission resulted in the closing of Fort Monroe in Hampton and threatened Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach. In addition, the management of four area bases was consolidated into two. Langley and Fort Eustis in Newport News now operate under a joint arrangement, and the same goes for Fort Story and the Navy's base at Little Creek in Virginia Beach.
President Barack Obama had proposed BRAC rounds in 2013 and 2015. The possibility of a 2013 BRAC now seems remote, given broad opposition in Congress.
Some lawmakers point to lower-than-expected savings from the 2005 BRAC. Others say the U.S. military is already dealing with enough changes because of the drawdown in Afghanistan, the shift in emphasis to the Pacific and the possibility of deep defense cuts in January, a process known as sequestration.
But that doesn't mean Langley is safe.
Bruce Sturk is Hampton's director of federal facilities, and has worked with Helsel and others on the Langley clear-zone issue.
He has heard that the Air Force will be looking at "excess capacity" as it deals with tighter budgets, and that could include a BRAC-like process. Also, a national BRAC round in 2015 remains a possibility.
Either scenario could threaten Langley, but Sturk sees a potential upside for the city. Langley could not only survive, it could take on more missions as other Air Force bases downsize or close, boosting its presence on the Peninsula.
He said he thinks the base is "very well positioned" to expand its capabilities, but that won't happen if private property next to the base presents hazards.
The Air Force "will give us negative points if we don't clean up the clear zone," he said.
The city has identified more than 20 sites in a crash zone on the western edge of the base it would like to purchase. Sturk said the process would take time. City officials have no intention of forcing the issue by taking land through eminent domain. Cleaning up the zone will have to be the product of a willing buyer – the city – and willing sellers agreeing on a fair market value.
"That way, it's a win-win for everyone," he said.
The city would handle the transactions with guidance from the Air Force on which sites should receive priority. Looking at a map of the base, much the area around Langley is already clear. The eastern side of the runway is largely bordered by water, although the western side is more developed, Sturk said the acquisition of a few key properties could improve the situation.
Sturk said the situation at Langley is "nowhere near the magnitude of Oceana," where millions have been spent over several years to limit development. The current state budget includes $7.5 million for land purchases around the naval air base.
He estimated it would take $10 million to $12 million to do the job. If the state commits $6 million and the city comes up with a match, "I think that will send a very, very strong message," he said.