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Bertie back in OLF bull#8217;s-eye

WINDSOR – The United States Navy has painted Bertie County back into its OLF (Outlying Landing Field) picture.

During yesterday’s (Monday) scheduled meeting of the Bertie Board of Commissioners, several Navy officials were present to explain the pending SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement) as the Navy moves forward in its quest to select one of five northeastern North Carolina sites for its OLF.

The proposal includes the Merry Hill-Midway area in the southeastern portion of the county. That is the same area first studied by the Navy in 2002.

The other four sites are in Perquimans, Washington, Hyde and Craven counties.

An OLF is a training facility for the Navy’s new fleet of F/A 18 Super Hornets. They practice touch-and-go landings during day and nighttime hours.

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.

Now, most of the Navy’s SEIS work will be performed in Washington and Hyde counties. However, when Commissioner Norman Cherry Sr.

pressed Navy official Francine Blend for a “bottom line” answer, she responded that Bertie County remains under consideration among the five possible sites.

“It seems to me that the Navy is picking on us,” Cherry said. “It’s the same thing as before…Oceana (Naval Air Station in Virginia where the Navy has its current OLF at Fentress Field) wants to keep all the jets and all the money, but send the noise down to us.”

Commissioner Wallace Perry took it one step further by saying, “If the Washington and Hyde county sites fail (to pass the SEIS), then I guess it’s thrown back on us.”

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way,” answered Navy Commander Rick Keys.

Upon opening the floor for the public to address the issue, Windsor Mayor Bob Spivey drew applause from the standing-room-only crowd when he urged those in attendance to write their federal elected officials.

“These men here today in uniform are simply carrying out their orders to be here,” Spivey said. “They are not in a position to change one thing. Write your senators…write your congressmen and let them know how you feel.”

Bertie County resident Lillian Harden, whose family’s farm will be affected if the OLF comes to Bertie County, expressed her opposition to the proposal. Later she informed Bertie’s elected leaders that her family had already been approached by a Navy official requesting access to their property for study purposes.

“It’s important that the Navy collects the best data they can in this process,” Rick Harrell, Board Chairman, said in response to Harden’s concerns. “I would urge you to be cooperative with their requests.”

Lynn Haber of the Black Rock community along the Chowan River (near the proposed Bertie OLF site) told Navy officials that, “the same environmental concerns in Washington County will ultimately be discovered in Bertie County.”

USN Rear Admiral Richard Sealand told the commissioners, “We believe it is in everyone’s best interest to gain the information necessary for the SEIS from which a sound decision can be reached.”

The SEIS will build upon the existing data from the Environmental Impact Study performed in July of 2003. There, the Navy compiled information on noise levels, land use, air quality, socioeconomics, utilities, infrastructure and transportation access. Also figured into the equation were topography, soils, human population density, water resources, cultural resources and terrestrial environment n including vegetation, wildlife, bird and animal strike hazards and threatened and endangered species.

Data to be added to the SEIS includes more research on waterfowl, noise, crops and wetlands. The additional waterfowl research will focus primarily on migratory birds where studies will include their numbers, their movements and the impact of noise during both day and night. An F/A 18 will be used in some of those fact-finding missions.

The Navy began collecting this added and new data last month and expects a finish date of March 2006. From there a draft SEIS will be written and presented in public hearings in all five counties. The final version of the SEIS is expected to be completed by 2007.

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 n 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.