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The Virginian-Pilot July 15, 2009

Funny-looking Beach radar station is serious business

By Deirdre Fernandes

VIRGINIA BEACH

Closed in by a fence and surrounded by a handful of squat, barracks-type buildings, the ARSR-4 radar protrudes out of Oceana Naval Air Station like a giant golf ball on a pin.

For years, it's been little more than a curiosity to passing drivers and even those who work on the base. But as Virginia Beach's leaders are finding out, this particular radar plays a key role in the country's defense.

"They are not optional," said John Pike, director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org. "They are mandatory. Don't leave home without it."

The Federal Aviation Administration has told city officials that buildings taller than about 10 stories, or 110 feet, at several sites at the Oceanfront would block the radar and threaten homeland security. The 31st Street Hilton near one of the sites rises 21 stories.

That notice has jeopardized the Beach's plan to make over the Oceanfront with high-rise buildings, including the Convention Center Hotel. And what about the proposed wind-farm industry? That project also could interfere with the radar.

Beach officials say the only other option is to move the radar, which could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

"It's a curveball," said Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who has been trying to get more information on the radar.

This ARSR-4, which stands for Air Route Surveillance Radar Model 4, was commissioned in 1995, said Arlene Salac, an FAA spokeswoman.

It's part of a network of 43 radars installed primarily along the outer rim of the United States in the early 1990s and used by both the FAA and the Department of Defense.

As a long-range radar, it can detect objects up to 250 nautical miles out.

The information gathered by the radar, which spins 360 degrees, is sent to the FAA, which uses it to direct air traffic. The Navy reviews the data to help manage offshore training exercises for its pilots. The Northeast Air Defense Sector, a division of the Air Force based in New York state and charged with protecting the homeland, also has access to the information.

The Air Force has raised the strongest objections to Virginia Beach's proposed building heights, said Gordon Reynolds, a former FAA official and consultant for the city.

The radar allows the Air Force to detect planes flying without transponders, which relay location and other identifying information.

"The bad guys aren't going to have that," Reynolds said.

A series of tall buildings at the Oceanfront could prevent the radar from seeing those planes, especially if they're flying at low altitudes, he said.

And air defense officials don't have any other comprehensive backup system, Reynolds added.

Still, Beach officials say, they aren't sure when or why obstruction of this radar became an issue. In 2007, the city asked the FAA to review a proposed 260-foot-tall building next to the Convention Center. At that time, the FAA said anything taller than 180 feet would pose a hazard, about 70 feet more than the agency is now allowing.

The FAA's notices are valid for only 18 months, and situations for the different agencies accessing the radar information can change, Salac said.

Beach officials say there are also other high-rises recently built at the Oceanfront.

The 31st Street Hilton, a private-public partnership between the city and developers Bruce Thompson and Edmund Ruffin, is about 200 feet tall. Another Thompson development, the Ocean Beach Club Resort, three blocks away, reaches about 18 stories.

FAA officials weren't able to find requests to review either of those sites, Salac said.

Most builders and construction crews know to inform the FAA if a building is going to rise above 100 feet, she said.

"I never ran into an issue where somebody hasn't done it," said Reynolds, the city's consultant, about the Hilton situation.

Repeated calls to Thompson and officials with his company Gold Key/PHR Hotels & Resorts were not returned.

The FAA would not make a developer tear down a building that is blocking the radar.

Deputy City Manager Steve Herbert said it's up to individual property owners to file with the FAA.

"Why somebody did or didn't before, I can't speak to," Herbert said.

The city has filed now and officials are drafting a letter asking the FAA to study moving the radar, Herbert said.

"We'll be sending letters to the FAA asking for an opportunity to discuss how we negotiate with them," Herbert said. "We're not going to do anything to degrade national security."

Pike said the radar could probably be moved within about five miles without harming coverage.

The question is, who will pay the expense, Pike said.


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