Bertie back in the bullseye?

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 28, 2007

It’s unclear if Washington County’s good news may turn bad for Bertie County.

After years of effort, it appears the U.S. Navy’s plans to build an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in Washington County have been derailed. By a vote of 397-27, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act on May 17. That legislation included 23 lines of language repealing the authorization to construct an OLF at the site identified by the Navy in Washington and Beaufort counties. The bill is part of Congress’ two-part process for oversight of the Department of Defense.

The Senate must now craft and approve its own version of the bill. Any differences between the bills would then have to be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee and the final version of the bill would then be approved by both the House and Senate.

North Carolina Congressmen G. K. Butterfield and David Price applauded the effort that seemingly steers Washington County out of the picture.

However, does that put Bertie County back in the bullseye for an OLF? At the outset, in 2002, of the Navy’s quest to construct a “touch-and-go” training facility for the pilots of its new F/A 18 Super Hornet strike fighter jets, Bertie was among the seven locations considered for the OLF. The other six were located in the counties of Carteret, Craven, Hyde, Perquimans and Washington along with a proposed site in Burke County, Ga.

According to maps provided by the Navy, the proposed Bertie site is located seven miles northeast of Windsor near the communities of Merry Hill and Midway. Since 2002, that area has experienced a commercial and residential boom. A new golf course there, complete with a residential subdivision, is about to open and there are several other major developments in the planning stages.

“There are development and economic opportunities now in that area of Bertie County that were not present back in 2002,” Lamb said. “I do not know what affect, what weight that will carry, if the Navy looks our way again. All I can say is that we’re not letting our guard down on this. We’re keeping abreast of what’s going on with this issue.”

Lamb, joined by other Bertie County leaders as well as officials from nearby Perquimans, Hyde, Pasquotank and Chowan counties, has been at the forefront of this issue since the OLF site list was released in January of 2002. The group has lobbied the support of state and federal elected officials, even going as far as visiting politicians in Raleigh and Washington, DC, to convince the Navy not to site an OLF in their respective counties.

That same group visited Fentress Field in Virginia, where the Navy maintains its current OLF. There, they witnessed first hand the noise and air pollution associated with these powerful jets.

Lamb said the Bertie County Board of Commissioners have, since January of 2002, stood firm behind their belief that an OLF was a bad mix for the county.

“This is not a military issue in the hearts and minds of our commissioners and citizens,” Lamb said. “It’s rather an environmental and economic issue.&uot;

Bertie County citizens, joined by residents of neighboring counties, voiced their displeasure over the OLF during a public hearing at Bertie High School conducted by the Navy in August of 2002. Nearly 400 people attended the hearing.

Meanwhile, those battling the Navy’s OLF plans in Washington County see the vote on the National Defense Authorization Act as a victory.

&uot;It’s a strong and positive step away from a site that would put our community, pilots and aircraft in danger,&uot; Congressman Butterfield said. &uot;Now we have to focus on finding an alternative that fulfills the needs of both the Navy and the community.”

The Navy has already purchased more than 2,000 acres in Washington and Beaufort counties as part of a 30,000-acre OLF the Navy says it needs in order to train pilots to land on aircraft carriers. The proposed site lies just west of an area that was established specifically as a waterfowl sanctuary where thousands of birds winter annually. At peak, there are about 25,000 tundra swans and more than 65,000 snow geese which regularly fly out to feed in the farm fields just west of the site.

Navy Secretary Donald Winter recently told Butterfield that the Navy is ready and willing to work with the state to find an alternative site.