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Bracing for Change

New DOD regulations signal economic turbulence for Northern Virginia.

Arlington officials are bracing for Friday's release of the Defense Department's (DOD) list of U.S. military installations that will be closed or moved in 2005. In an emergency conference of local leaders Monday, Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) said he expects the Base Realignment and Closure Committee's (BRAC) latest findings to include sites throughout Northern Virginia. Yet a larger concern, he said, is the anticipated enactment of new security standards for offices leased by the Defense Department that could signal a rapid exodus of federal agencies and a down-turn for Arlington's economy.

"The scope of the economic impact can't be overstated," said Moran. "This is as threatening a situation as what we've seen in the last 15 years."

Among the new standards is one requiring all buildings that house more than 50 defense workers to be "setback" from the streets at a minimum distance of 148 feet to safeguard personnel from bombing attacks.

"The situation is that we anticipate Secretary Rumsfeld will announce the substantial relocation of leased Defense Department office space that currently does not meet the setback standard," said Moran.

The DOD, according to Moran, now leases 140 buildings in Arlington, accounting for more than 60 percent of the county's leased office space, about 8 million square feet in total. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, is the single largest tenant in the Clarendon area according to county records. Moran said the loss of these federal offices could also result in the departure of an estimated 52,000 DOD employees along with $2 billion in contract money by 2006.

"All of the planning and considerations that enable us to function as a Metro area prohibit us from meeting the standards," said Moran, pointing out that the new regulations also dictate that leased buildings cannot include mixed uses such as retail space or Metrorail stations. "These are prescriptive standards as opposed to performance standards. We think a better approach are performance standards, how safe we can make the people inside those buildings."

Moran said fitting existing leased buildings with glazed windows, hardened concrete and other security measures could achieve the same objective.

ONE FLAW in the new regulations, said Moran, is that they only consider the potential for one type of terrorist attack, a 200-kilogram bomb packed inside a truck.

"It's arbitrary," he said, adding that a bomb of the same size could be stowed inside a bag and carried on foot. "It does nothing to prevent a chemical or biological attack and it would have made no difference on 9-11."

The side-effects of moving DOD offices, many at the conference said, could be larger than anyone anticipates. Likely sites for their relocation, according to Moran, are the Engineering Proving Grounds in Fairfax County, Fort Belvoir or Fort Myer.

"The nearby bases really don't have the traffic capacity to handle much more activity," Moran said.

The new regulations are already in effect, according to Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, but they have never faced any kind of public vetting or hearings.

"The ultimate consequence is the dislocation of many to secluded bases where you might not want to live," Fisette said.

Although the BRAC closures and the movement of DOD offices are separate issues, Fisette said they are connected. Friday's list, he said, will reinforce DOD's ruling on office requirements. Among contractors and local officials, he said, questions remain as to how strictly the standards will be enforced.

"There's still a lot of confusion about that," he said.

There is also no money allocated in the latest incarnation of the fiscal year 2006 federal budget to pay for the cost of relocating DOD offices. And, in Washington, new defense-related offices are already being set up that do not meet the standards, a glaring inconsistency.

"We're seeing leases now that are being signed on buildings downtown," said Quinn Rounsaville, a representative of development company JBG, referring to a new lease for the FBI's counter-terrorism unit in a building near the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station. "That doesn't meet the standards."

Moran said the Pentagon itself does not meet the requirements of the new regulations.

"Washington Boulevard is far too close to it," he said. "The Pentagon is in violation."

On how to combat the changes, Moran said the task is made more difficult by the resistance of some House members who see them as beneficial for their own constituencies.

"My guess is that some of my colleagues feel this will help them," he said. "If you go far enough West from here, there's no Metro and there aren't many good roads, but there's a lot of land to build on."