Representatives from Virginia testified before the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission yesterday, lobbying to keep Oceana Naval Air Station and its more than 10,000 jobs from being shifted to Florida.
The commission added Oceana, Virginia Beach's largest employer, to the list of military bases across the country that it recommended be closed or shrunk last month, citing concerns that residential growth around the naval air station poses a safety risk to pilots and residents.
Oceana, a "master jet base," hosts F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets that are deployed aboard aircraft carriers. It is the main naval base for fighter jets on the East Coast.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) argued that both the Defense Department and the Navy support keeping the base in Virginia.
He also said the state is taking steps to address concerns about encroachment, including the possibility of state-mandated zoning regulations and the purchase of development rights in areas close to the base.
"We have heard loud and clear your concerns about encroachment," Warner said.
Meanwhile, representatives from Florida told commission members that Oceana's duties could be taken over by Cecil Field Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, which was transferred from military to commercial use in 1999, following a recommendation from the last base realignment commission.
"Jacksonville was entrusted with a jewel that is the master jet base," Mayor John Peyton told commissioners. "We want to return this jewel to its rightful owners."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) vowed that the state and city of Jacksonville would keep a greenbelt around the air station to limit development.
He also said the state would offer tax exemptions to builders of affordable rental housing for naval employees, accelerate the construction of a $130 million road connecting the base to an interstate highway and complete the conversion within the six years required by federal law.
Three former Navy pilots testified that the cramped conditions around Oceana made it difficult to train fliers in simulated combat conditions.
Local noise-abatement ordinances mean that aircraft coming in for landings must approach at higher altitudes than they would at sea, and they don't land after 10:30 p.m.
"When you are under stress, you must rely on your instincts," said Adm. Stan Arthur, former vice chairman of naval operations.
Those instincts must be developed through "realistic, repetitive training," he said.
A retired naval pilot speaking for the Virginia delegation countered that the restrictions did not hamper combat training for pilots.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) argued that no base is perfect and that moving operations to a new one could solve some problems -- and create others.
He pointed to a map of commercial air traffic routes, supplied by the Federal Aviation Administration, showing a web of commercial flights going into and out of Jacksonville, noting that the traffic would give military pilots limited flying opportunities.
"We're talking about encroachment in the air," he said.
Commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi said the nine-member panel would spend the next few days "trying to sort through disconnects on the data," including the disputed overall cost of reconverting Cecil Field to a military base.
The Navy has estimated the cost at $1.6 billion; Florida representatives say it would be a quarter of that.
The commission will begin voting on the recommendations Wednesday.
Its final list of recommendations is due to President Bush on Sept. 8.