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Unless Radar Facility is Moved, FAA Will Block Development of
Oceanfront Convention Center Hotel, Virginia Beach, Virginia

By Deirdre Fernandes, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 8, 2009--VIRGINIA BEACH -- The Federal Aviation Administration will block the city from moving forward with several high-profile projects near the Oceanfront, including the Convention Center hotel. That's unless the federal government agrees to move the giant radar facility at Oceana Naval Air Station, which could cost at least $12 million.

The agency has determined that any building taller than 110 feet -- roughly 10 stories -- at the Oceanfront would obstruct a surveillance radar used to protect the Eastern Seaboard. The locations include the Rudee Loop and sites next to the 31st Street Hilton and the Convention Center.

Several buildings already interfere with the radar, which looks like a giant golf ball, and the cumulative effect of more such buildings would make things worse, FAA officials wrote to the city.

"It's a very serious loss of potential," Deputy City Manager Steve Herbert said. "It's not something that we can live with in the long haul."

The decision forces the city to rethink its plans for the Convention Center hotel. Beach officials are reviewing two proposals, and both call for a hotel almost double the height of the FAA recommendation.

"Obviously, this is a disappointment to the city, and we will be pursuing several avenues to remedy what we consider to be an unfair determination," City Manager Jim Spore wrote to the City Council.

The 10-story limit could also curb plans to redevelop the resort's skyline with taller, denser buildings to make the most of the small amount of developable land left at the Oceanfront. It also would make it difficult to build wind farms off the coast, said Councilman John Uhrin.

The city has known since early 2008 that the FAA had concerns about the proposed height of the convention center hotel.

Last winter, the city spent $22,500 to hire a former FAA employee as a consultant and sought staff from Sen. Jim Webb's office to work with the FAA.

In January, the city resubmitted its application for the hotel, along with potential structures at sites such as Rudee Loop.

The FAA gave the same negative answer for all the sites, which is simply a recommendation, said Arlene Salac, spokeswoman for the federal agency. It does make it difficult for a developer to get insurance or financing, she said.

Beach officials plan to talk to the FAA and congressional representatives about moving the radar and will do studies of how much tax revenue the city could lose because of the height restriction, Herbert said.

"We understand the importance of national security," he said. "The city has outgrown the radar. It's a natural phenomenon."

Other communities near airports face similar problems, Herbert said.

Still, it would be unusual for the FAA to agree to the move. Beach officials know of only one other instance: In 1991, a long-range radar installation was replaced in Florida because a hurricane destroyed the old one.

The cost of moving a radar facility is unclear, because it's rarely done. Replacing an air-traffic radar in Massachusetts recently was estimated at $12 million to $15 million.

"They were put at the site for a reason, for the coverage they provide," Salac said. "They could certainly come to us with that proposal. That would be a very expensive undertaking."

Deirdre Fernandes, (757) 222-5121, deirdre.fernandes@pilotonline.com

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To see more of the The Virginian-Pilot, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pilotonline.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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