Residents set to fight Navy’s OLF with all they’ve got

From Rural communities in North Carolina oppose the Navy’s OLF.

Rural communities in North Carolina oppose the Navy’s OLF.

Quietly but surely, rural communities on the edges of Hampton Roads are gearing up for what could be a fateful fight.

In Surry County, one woman is compiling lists of historic and prehistoric sites; another is analyzing demographic data.

Residents of Gates County, N.C., are sketching their family trees, gathering old photographs and accumulating property deeds and land records.

And Tony Clark and Roland Evans are putting the finishing touches on an 18-minute documentary about life in Virginia’s Southampton, Sussex and Surry counties.

The efforts have a common goal: build a case against the Navy’s plan to construct a jet landing strip in the midst of a rural community.

The outlying landing field, or OLF, primarily would serve fighter pilots based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

A year ago, after abandoning plans to build a practice landing strip in Washington County, N.C., the Navy announced it would study five new potential sites for the controversial $200 million project.

This summer, the Navy will release its preliminary environmental analysis of the sites – three in Virginia; two in northeastern North Carolina – and might designate one or more of the locations as front-runners.

But opponents aren’t waiting until then. Emboldened by Washington County’s success in heading off the Navy, they are embarking on public relations campaigns, undertaking their own studies of possible impacts and putting politicians on notice about their opposition of the landing strip.

Navy brass and Virginia officials who want to protect Oceana’s status as the East Coast’s master jet base are frustrated by the early and intense opposition.

Dialogue has ground to a halt. Distrust abounds. Both sides say they’re open to real conversation but accuse the other of being evasive or sticking to a familiar script.

Rear Adm. David Anderson, vice commander of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, heads the Navy’s effort to have a landing field operational by 2013.

Not wanting to repeat the service’s mistakes last time, Anderson pledged last year that the Navy would be more flexible about acquiring the 3,000-acre “core” of the field. He announced that residents living in the highest noise zones could stay in their homes if they desired. He said the Navy would work with local governments to spur economic development compatible with the field.

None of that has seemed to sway the landowners and residents of the affected communities.

Opponents not only question the Navy’s need for the landing field, but some doubt the future of Oceana itself and assert that its days are numbered.

That galls Anderson, a fighter pilot by training.

“It’s a credibility issue,” he said. “And I hate to say it, but there are certain areas right now where, because I’m wearing a uniform, people do not believe me. In 31 years of being in the Navy, I never thought I would see that.”

Pilots of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornet s now prepare for nighttime carrier landings at Oceana and Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, both of which have been encircled by suburban development. The Navy contends that it needs an additional landing strip, in a more rural setting, to relieve the pressure on Oceana and Fentress, especially during summer and when multiple aircraft carriers are preparing to deploy.

Anderson cites as an example the Norfolk-based squadron that trains E2C Hawkeye pilots. Five times a year, the squadron heads to Jacksonville, Fla., for its field carrier landing practice because Fentress is too busy. The cost to the Navy: $1.8 million.

Opponents claim that unchecked development around Oceana and Fentress created the problem and accuse the Navy of trying to export jet noise to the countryside in order to spare the ears of city residents. They cite the 2005 findings of a federally appointed base closing commission that criticized “encroachment” around Oceana.

If Oceana is in jeopardy, or if its limitations mean it won’t be able to host the next-generation fighter jet, they argue, the Navy shouldn’t spend up to $200 million on a landing field that could soon become obsolete.

The debate isn’t about encroachment, Anderson says, and even if Oceana and Fentress were surrounded by desert, the service would need an outlying landing field. The Navy “is out of capacity to train pilots” on the East Coast, he said.

“That’s the urgency that we’re dealing with right now,” Anderson said. For the future, we don’t see that going away, but if it does, if it changes, we’re willing to try to structure this now so that it’s advantageous for the county and the military down the road.”

One possibility he mentioned: build a facility that in 50 or 60 years could become a county airport.

Some of those Anderson is trying to persuade already are familiar with the sound of Navy jets in training.

Cyndi Raiford, a certified therapeutic riding instructor, used to work at Equi-kids, a program that teaches physically and mentally disabled clients to ride horses at a facility that is a few hundred yards from Oceana.

Ten years ago, Raiford and her husband bought 65 acres in Southampton County. They lease some of the land to Graz’n Acres, a therapeutic riding program that serves 75 children with autism or other disabilities. Raiford serves as its executive director.

The property is within a few miles of the Navy’s Dory site.

Raiford doesn’t think supersonic jets, horses and autistic children are a good mix. Many autistic youths suffer from auditory defensiveness, Raiford said. Even the hum of fluorescent lights in the barn can bother them.

“All of our students have difficulty concentrating and staying on task. You add noise to the mix, and it makes it that much harder,” Raiford said.

At Equi-kids, her lessons would come to a halt when Navy jets passed overhead.

“It’s really going to compromise our ability out here to the point where the center would probably have to consider relocating, if that site goes through,” Raiford said. “I guess what people really need to understand is there are such limited services for people with disabilities, especially locally. There aren’t that many opportunities for most of these students.”

Raiford’s story is one of several highlighted in a new video produced by Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field. Another excerpt features a Surry County family that farms land passed down for more than 100 years.

A rough cut of the film was shown in early February at a series of community meetings in Surry, Sussex and Southampton counties.

Tony Clark, chairman of the group, has bigger aspirations for the film.

“From ‘Oprah’ to ’60 Minutes,’ they’re all going to get a copy,” Clark told about 150 people at Surry High School for an opposition meeting.

Anita Earls represents Citizens Against OLF, a group fighting to keep the landing field out of Gates County. She’s also executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Under her direction, residents are compiling information about their long-standing connection to the land, whether through farming or fishing or hunting, as well as the ties that bind them together.

The effort involves everything from gathering census data to analyzing the community’s social networks, which could be disrupted if families move away from the field.

“To what extent are people reliant on next-door neighbors to take them to the doctor?” Earls asked. “It’s not a given. It’s not something that exists everywhere, or to the same degree in all places.”

A group of 10 students from the environmental law and policy clinic at Duke University’s law school is assessing potential environmental impacts of a landing field in Gates County. The students are compiling a “shadow environmental impact statement” to compare with the document the Navy plans to publish this summer.

Environmental issues – specifically, the impact jet maneuvers would have on waterfowl at a nearby national wildlife refuge – helped doom the Washington County site. Opponents successfully sued the Navy for breaching the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Earls thinks another bit of federal law could prove more important this round: Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says federal money can’t be used to disproportionately impact a minority community in a negative way.

“Particularly in Gates County, that may be a real issue,” Earls said. “In some ways, that has more teeth than NEPA.”

Anderson knows he can’t personally answer every criticism from community members. But he insists he’s committed to dialogue with residents who might be directly affected by a landing field.

The admiral said one woman whose home is within the high-noise contours of a Virginia site contacted the Navy last summer to learn more about the possible impact.

He arranged for a group of eight of her neighbors and family members to spend the day at Oceana. She talked to pilots, watched them practice in a simulator and saw jet-landing practice up close at Fentress.

The Navy then drove her about two miles away for an idea of what the noise level would be at her home.

She later sent a note, he said, thanking him for his hospitality. She said she understood that the Navy does need a landing field – but she still didn’t want it in her community.

To Anderson, that was progress. She wasn’t saying that the Navy didn’t need the field, or was wasting money, or had ulterior motives.

“It was ‘No, I understand now, and I do believe you, but still, everything said and done, I’d prefer not to have it in my backyard,’ ” Anderson said. “And that’s about the best I think we can hope for.”

Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, kate.wiltrout@pilotonline.com

Date: 2009-03-17

Source: Virginia Pilot

From http://hamptonroads.com/2009/02/residents-set-fight-navys-olf-all-theyve-got