Navy Tried to Block Banquet Hall in Norfolk, But the Little Guy Won

Norfolk Naval Shipyard

New businesses frequently spark neighborhood concerns about noise or traffic.

Krista and Kenny Hines' plan to open a small banquet hall in Ocean View drew a far more powerful opponent recently: the United States Navy.

But this week, a majority on the Norfolk City Council overruled the objections of the Navy, the mayor and the city's planning officials.

Against all odds, Elegant Occasions by Krista has the go-ahead to open. It could start hosting events in about a month.

The dispute centered on the risk of plane crashes in the area surrounding the Navy's Chambers Field. It also highlights the realities of life in a densely populated region studded with military bases. Like Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake have grappled with how to balance development and safety around Navy airfields.

Elegant Occasions' site at the north end of Granby Street is more than a mile and a half from the east end of the Chambers Field runway. Yet it's under a takeoff path, which puts it in "Accident Potential Zone Two," in the parlance of a 2005 land-use study.

"We view development at this site as an encroachment upon operations on Naval Station Norfolk," Capt. Doug Beaver, commander of the world's largest naval base, wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to the city.

The problem: Krista Hines said no one told her anything about the zone until the end of December. She applied to open the business in October, city records show.

Hines said she had three different meetings with city staffers to find out what she needed to win approval. She followed the instructions, including getting an architect's drawing and an occupancy permit.

Nary a word was said about the Navy.

Thinking everything was on track, Hines also bought furniture, curtains and equipment for the 3,400-square-foot space, which will hold up to 80 people for events.

"This is almost a comedy of errors," said one of her business partners, Chris Collins.

If the city didn't know about the crash-zone issue, he added, "How in the world could we know?"

On Tuesday, council members agreed.

"If we drop the ball, the citizens shouldn't be the ones who pay the price," Vice Mayor Angelia Williams Graves said before voting to approve Elegant Occasions.

She and Councilwoman Mamie Johnson said they had intended to side with the Navy, but were swayed by what they heard at the meeting.

Hines said her first hint of the "accident potential zones" came at the end of December, when an email from the city offered to refund her application fees if she withdrew the plan.

At a subsequent meeting in January, city staffers and a Navy representative explained the problem. Hines said the city and Navy admitted to messing up, with city staffers saying they had to use a magnifying glass to confirm the site on Granby fell within the crash-risk zone.

Steve Jones, the naval base's community liaison, said in an interview that the city didn't tell the Navy about the project until late December.

Still, city staff and the Planning Commission pointed to Norfolk's own policies and recommended rejecting Hines' application.

In 2004, Norfolk agreed to a joint study with Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and the Department of Defense to review appropriate land use near military bases. The study identified zones at risk for crashes.

And as part of a 2013 long-range plan, the city agreed not to approve any "increase in intensity of incompatible uses" in those zones. In essence, that means someone can open a new business if it's the same kind that was there before -- but not if it's one that would draw more people.

Elegant Occasions' building used to house a restaurant, Arianna's Cafe, and a bike shop. But the city sees a banquet hall that involves "assemblies" as an intensified use.

Mayor Paul Fraim and Councilman Barclay Winn voted against Hines on Tuesday, saying a yes vote would set a bad precedent.

"This is a slippery slope you start down once you say 'Well, we'll let this one go,'" Fraim said, adding that the city should live up to its commitment.

Councilman Tommy Smigiel, who voted yes, said he was bothered by the idea of the city treating Hines' business differently.

The St. Patrick's Day parade on Granby Street draws thousands of people to a crash-risk zone, he said, while festivals at Ocean View Beach Park attract hundreds.

"Is the St. Patrick's Day parade grandfathered in ... or so now do we need to consider changing their whole route out of this because now we're putting thousands of people's lives in danger of a potential crash that could happen?" Smigiel asked.

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