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Colonel brings BRAC to the Community

Belvoir Commander addresses questions from Mount Zephyr Citizen’s Association.

“No daylight between us,” said Col. Brian Lauritzen, Installation Commander of Fort Belvoir, to about 70 people in a room of the South County Government Center on July 12. The phrase was coined by the Secretary of the Army in reference to working relationships within the military, but Lauritzen used it to describe his efforts to close the communication gap between the Department of Defense and military installations’ civilian neighbors.

Lauritzen was speaking to the Mount Zephyr Citizen’s Association at their monthly meeting. The engagement occurred one day after his one-year anniversary as commander of the base.

The meeting comes at a time when the community is vividly aware of the enormous numbers of new people, new offices, new homes and new cars that Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) planners have aimed squarely at Fort Belvoir. BRAC plans call for 1,700 new homes on the base and a total of 7.5 million square feet of new construction. An additional 7.5 million square feet of construction must occur exclusively for one purpose: parking lots, said to the colonel. Most of the 22,000 new employees that that are coming to the base are expected to drive, according to BRAC planners.

The army has yet to decide exactly how the base will absorb these numbers. Lauritzen said a decision should be made within a month. But plans for how the massive dose of new traffic will squeeze onto already-congested roads around the base are even further from any satisfactory answer, as Lauritzen’s engagement with the community demonstrated.

“THERE TYPICALLY are more questions than there are answers,” in these types of meetings, Lauritzen warned. He began his presentation by trying to place the Belvoir expansion under BRAC within the larger context of the Army’s four priorities. The first priority is winning the global war on terror, the colonel explained. “Everything we do in the military is focused on that effort right now.” Repositioning forces away from Europe and Korea, reorganizing them into more agile and responsive units and transforming the way the army does business with itself and others were the other priorities. How does Fort Belvoir fit into this “big Army stuff”?

“Bottom line is, it’s an anti-terrorism force protection posture we’re maintaining,” Lauritzen said.

Though Lauritzen soon delved into the smaller picture, this larger context set the tone for the relationship between the Army and its civilian neighbors. Belvoir’s neighbors are free to ask questions and offer advice. But BRAC is happening, and the Army expects Mount Vernon to cope. National defense comes first.

For the Army, the reorganization of Belvoir is a matter of military necessity, a small piece of a larger process designed to make itself more efficient. But the expansion is requiring Belvoir planners to solve a massive challenge. “We’re going to take Belvoir and put it on top of itself again,” said the colonel. “And that causes us some consternation.”

Lauritzen said he was told by another military official that “BRAC at Belvoir is the most complex and most challenging [implementation] of BRAC anywhere on the planet.”

“YOUR FIRST QUESTION is, ‘Where are you going to build it?’” Lauritzen told the association when he began describing potential construction sites on the base, “My first answer is, I don’t know.”

He said that when he asked his seven year old daughter where they should build, she suggested spreading construction between the base and the Engineering Proving Ground (EPG), a plot of land about five miles north-west of Fort Belvoir west of Interstate 95 and Backlick Road. “It seems logical because transportation’s an issue,” the colonel said. Although Lauritzen did not know where the BRAC planners would choose to site the new buildings, he was confident they would not choose the land occupied by Davison Airfield. He said clearing that land would be “too complicated” to accomplish within BRAC’s five-year timeline.

BRAC PLANNERS have been criticized, by the Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland among others, for not conducting thorough studies on the effect the BRAC changes will have on the area’s traffic patterns. Lauritzen said predicting this traffic would be near impossible, because workers whose jobs will shift to Belvoir cannot answer yet whether they will move their residences to shorten their commutes. “Even if we had perfect knowledge today it will change in four five years,” the colonel said.

Lauritzen drew a compass labeled with the percentages of where people live who will be working at Belvoir after BRAC changes take effect. There will be a total of 45 thousand workers in five years, up from the 23 thousand working there now. 41 percent of those 45 thousand are currently living to the south of Belvoir, 28 percent to the north, 17 percent to the west and 14 percent to the east in Maryland.

“What we don’t know is, ‘Is this a problem really if we site the facilities to account for this?’” Lauritzen said. “We might be able to absorb some stuff from the north. There might be some wiggle room, I don’t know.”

He added that the transportation issue “is where we begin to partner [with the community.] This is the team sport part of it.”

AFTER THE COLONEL opened the floor for questions, Jim Walton stood up and advised BRAC planners to consult history instead of shrugging their shoulders at the impossibility of predicting future commuting patterns. Walton said he had been involved in the Defense Logistics Agency’s move to Belvoir several years ago. He suggested the Army study it, and other similar moves, to see how many employees shifted their residencies. “There’s probably a hundred studies out there where businesses moved five miles, ten miles, a hundred miles,” he said.

Scott McCain asked why the military didn’t build more on-base housing to accommodate workers. Lauritzen replied that it had initially planned another one thousand houses, but local elected officials said this would take opportunities from the local economy. He said that in addition to building 1,700 new homes, part of the BRAC master plan called for land to be designated as the site of future homes.

Mount Vernon Transportation Commissioner Earl Flanagan asked whether planners were doing anything to discourage long commutes. He said a lack of exit ramps meant no Belvoir commuters could use the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on I-95. He asked why there was no plan to build a Virginia Railway Express Station near the Fairfax County Parkway. He also suggested using a punitive parking space allotment to discourage single-occupancy drivers. He said many federal agencies were giving carpools prime parking spaces.

When asked about constructing Metro or rail stops, the colonel said civilian governments would have to make those decisions. He advised community members to ask their congressional representatives if they wanted Federal funds to ease their traffic problems.

Lauritzen had a similar response to Mount Zephyr president Dan Burrier’s enquiry about the impact on the Route I corridor, “given that defense contractors usually follow the military.”

“I really don’t want to be in the business of planning Route 1,” Lauritzen said, “and you don’t want me in that business. But I want you to know we are sensitive.” He said BRAC planners rely on the civilian members of the BRAC board of advisors, including Supervisors Gerry Hyland and Dana Kauffman, to make them aware of these issues.

AFTER THE MEETING, Most attendees said they were pleased with the presentation. “I think it was well presented,” said David Neidlinger, “as functional as it could be under the circumstances. This was necessary and good. I’m sure it was enlightening for a lot of people.”

“I though it was very informative,” said Ingeborg Catlett. “But we will have to wait and see what time brings ... I appreciate that he came out to talk to us. It’s always nice to get information directly from the person involved.”

Flanagan said he wondered whether the colonel’s long presentation of data cut into time that could have been used for questioning, but he added he was happy the colonel had made himself available. “It’s good to questions like that out on the table,” Flanagan said. “And that can only occur in a forum like this.”

Burrier acknowledged that the Lauritzen had “deferred” his question about effects on Route 1 to “local politicians … However,” Burrier added, “it was encouraging for me to hear that Belvoir was receptive to listening to our local folk.”