Butterfield seeks alternative OLF site

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 5, 2005

WINDSOR – While the battle to derail an effort to place a Navy practice facility in nearby Washington County shifts its focus towards the political arena, Bertie County officials are hoping they will not be dragged into this fight once again.

Earlier this week, First District U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield called upon his Tar Heel colleagues in the House and Senate to join him in asking the Navy to consider an alternative site for the highly controversial Outlying Landing Field (OLF).

In July of 2003, the Navy opted for a site in Washington County, ending an 18-month search for an appropriate location to build an airfield used by F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet pilots for simulated aircraft carrier landings.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that a U.S. Navy decision to place the OLF in Washington County was based on an incomplete and flawed process. Calling the study that backed up the decision &uot;incomplete,&uot; Judge Boyle stopped all activities related to building the field and sent the Navy back to redo its environmental analysis.

Opponents of the Washington County site said the Navy had disregarded the fact that the proposed $186 million training facility lies in the middle of the bird migratory route. The 30,000-acre base is less than five miles from a national wildlife refuge, one where 25,000 tundra swans and 65,000 snow geese fly out of to feed in the farm fields just west of the site.

Butterfield seized the opportunity to call upon the Navy to consider an alternative site. He sent correspondence to the 14 other members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, asking them to support a joint letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon R. England, informing him of their concerns.

&uot;All of the opposition concentrates on the location of the landing field and not on the need for an OLF,&uot; Butterfield said. &uot;I believe that if everyone could get behind another site we could quickly move this forward together.&uot;

If the Navy agrees to the proposal, will that decision place Bertie County back into the OLF picture?

An area near Midway/Merry Hill was listed among six potential sites originally considered for the OLF. Others included locations in Perquimans, Washington, Hyde and Craven counties in North Carolina and Burke County, S.C.

&uot;We don’t believe we will become a target once again,&uot; said Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb. &uot;The Bertie County Board of Commissioners are already on the record, and have been since 2002, that they oppose any effort that considers Bertie County as a potential site for the OLF. I can assure you that if the Navy considers us again, the Commissioners will fight this tooth and nail.&uot;

Bertie’s citizens also made it clear they firmly oppose an OLF in the county. During a public hearing held in August of 2002, nearly 400 people packed the Bertie High School gym to voice their displeasure over the Navy’s proposal.

Meanwhile, Craven County’s Board of Commissioners agreed to site the OLF, contingent upon some of the Super Hornet squadrons being based at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point.

&uot;The Navy has said that two of the 10 Super Hornet squadrons (24 aircraft) are headed for Cherry Point, but I won’t believe that until it actually happens,&uot; Lamb stressed. &uot;I really feel that this is the old bait-and-switch routine. (Virginia Senator) John Warner wants all 10 squadrons based at Oceana (Va.) Naval Air Station, so all the money that accompanies those units will stay in Virginia while all the noise come to North Carolina. We’re just seeing the beginning of the political gamesmanship that always goes hand in hand with proposals such as this.&uot;

Because of the split squadrons, the Washington County site was chosen due to its central location between Cherry Point and Oceana.

The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets are much noisier than the models they replace, carry a heavier payload, have a longer range, and greater endurance than the older models.

Pilots need to train on an OLF to simulate takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier. Squadrons are deployed to an aircraft carrier six of each 24 months and the remaining time is spent at a home station where pilots train to prepare for deployment. It is not desirable to site OLFs at a home base because practice landings interfere with regular military operations.

The OLF will have an 8,000-foot runway, operate 24/7, and the Navy estimates there would be about 51,220 takeoffs and landings per year; 37,704 landings during daylight hours and 13,516 at night.

&uot;North Carolina has a long and proud history of working closely with the Navy and we want to continue that tradition,&uot; Butterfield concluded. &uot;We offer any assistance that we can provide in finding an appropriate alternative.&uot;