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Navy reevaluates OLF sites

WINDSOR – Bertie County residents are not advised to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.

Late last week, the United States Navy announced they would reevaluate all of the possible sites in northeastern North Carolina to construct an Outlying Landing Field (OLF), a facility where pilots of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets Pilots train to simulate takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier.

Bertie citizens learned three years ago that the Navy was considering a 53,000-acre tract of land near the Merry Hill-Midway area for its OLF.

Eventually, the Navy opted for land in Washington County. However, environmental concerns and political maneuverings have placed that chosen tract of land in jeopardy.

According to last week’s press release, issued by the United States Fleet Forces Command office in Norfolk, Va., the Washington/Beaufort site remains the Navy’s preferred choice, but the five alternative OLF sites in northeastern North Carolina that were evaluated in the Navy’s 2003 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be reevaluated in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).

The Navy has filed a Notice of Intent to prepare a SEIS on areas in Bertie, Craven, Hyde and Perquimans counties in addition to Washington and Beaufort counties.

The Navy will combine the additional analysis with the original environmental data and again review the five selected sites.

Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb made it clear once again that an OLF is not welcomed in the county.

&uot;We don’t feel we are in imminent danger of becoming a target,&uot; Lamb said, &uot;but we will monitor this latest development very closely.&uot;

Lamb continued, &uot;Our county commissioners have stated clearly that they oppose an OLF in Bertie County. They, along with our citizens, feel this would be devastating to the growth of our county, especially along the Chowan River.&uot;

Lamb said he believed the Navy’s needs for its pilots to conduct their training can be handled at the current OLF at Fentress Field, adjacent to Oceana (Va.) Naval Air Station. He said if one must be placed in North Carolina, he would recommend Craven County at a site near Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station where two of the 10 Super Hornets squadrons are scheduled to be based (the other eight are slated for Oceana).

&uot;This new study is in response to a lawsuit that claims the initial environmental impact study done on the Washington County site was not performed properly,&uot; Lamb noted. &uot;I think the Navy, this time around, will make sure all of its ‘i’s’ are dotted and its ‘t’s’ are crossed.&uot;

Lamb said Bertie officials are scheduled to attend a ‘No-OLF’ meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) morning in Edenton. Bertie joined that group when first considered for an OLF back in 2002.

In February of 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ruled the Navy’s 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.

When first considered for an OLF, Bertie County residents turned out to voice their displeasure during a public hearing held Aug. 28, 2002 at the Bertie High School gym. Many saw the OLF as extremely detrimental to their communities as well as destroying any possible development along its rivers and adversely affect farming.

The OLF would not bring many employment opportunities – as estimated 20 jobs, with most coming from outside the county. Additionally, the OLF would erase about 53,000 acres off Bertie’s tax base.

The Navy feels a new OLF is vitally important to operational readiness, training and national security.

It is critically needed to provide better, more realistic training to Navy pilots and in support of the war on terrorism.

Consequently, the Navy plans to pursue every avenue under the law to make this critical resource available to its pilots as soon as possible.

The Navy disagrees with the court’s ruling that the FEIS did not meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and has appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Oral argument on the appeal is scheduled for July 20.

Because the Navy has determined the need for a new OLF, whether in Washington/Beaufort County or elsewhere, is so urgent and critical, the Navy is proceeding simultaneously with an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals while initiating the SEIS.

In general, the SEIS will provide additional environmental analysis of potential OLF sites, cumulative impacts, Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard, waterfowl/wildlife impacts, possible mitigation measures and surge operations.

The Navy intends to work cooperatively with other agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in preparing the SEIS.