Gates vows OLF fight

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 26, 2007

GATESVILLE – The proverbial line in the sand has been drawn.

In front of a Monday night crowd estimated in excess of 700 inside and out of the Gates Courthouse, local leaders and citizens vowed to fight the U.S. Navy’s plans to construct an Outlying Landing Field in the county.

An OLF is used to train Navy pilots for simulated, aircraft carrier landings. Those practice sessions are performed day and night by the Navy’s new generation of Super Hornet jets. The jets are based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and Cherry Point Marine Air Station in Havelock.

While a pair of Gates County locations are just two of the 21 potential sites on the Navy’s short list, County Commission Vice-Chairman David Brown said this was a serious issue.

“We don’t know how high or low we are on the Navy’s list,” Brown said in reference to the two possible sites in Gates County n one in the Sandbanks area and the other near Hobbsville at the old railroad grade. “I can stand here tonight and say that we, as your board of commissioners, are united against the OLF.”

At the outset of Monday’s meeting, Brown made it clear that county officials were caught off guard by the OLF plans. He said Gates County officials were neither informed nor invited to attend a meeting in Raleigh last week where Gov. Mike Easley and Navy officials released a list of eight possible sites in North Carolina, including two in nearby Camden County. Another three possible sites remain from the Navy’s initial round of OLF discussions back in 2001 while the other 10 potential locations are in Virginia.

“I first found out (about Gates County being mentioned) when a friend called me on my cell phone,” Brown said. “Had we been informed earlier or invited to the meeting in Raleigh, we could have already sounded the alarm and been further along in our fight.”

While seven members of the audience were pre-selected to address the issue, Brown reminded the crowd that this wasn’t a public hearing.

“There will be time for that very soon; tonight we are hosting an informational meeting,” Brown said. “What we are doing as of now is making each and every attempt to get a grip on this issue as fast as we can. Right now we don’t have a lot of answers, but we will keep asking questions until we get those answers.”

At stake is the future of Gates County, or as Brown so aptly stated, “not the future of the Sandbanks or the future of Hobbsville, but the future of all of us.”

According to a summary of factors evaluated for the proposed OLF sites in North Carolina, a total of 439 homes would be affected in Gates County (248 at or near the Sandbanks site and 191 at the Hobbsville location). Residents of 12 of those homes (9 n Sandbanks and 3 n Hobbsville) would be mandated to leave their residences due to falling within an area containing a minimum 75 decibel noise level. The remaining residents would live within an area of 60-to-70 decibel noise level. They have the option to put up with the noise or move.

“We support our military 100 percent, but we are a poor county,” Brown noted. “Due to a lack of industry or major businesses here in the county, our tax base is built on land and homes. If the OLF comes here we will see many families displaced, move out of the county all together. An OLF is also a deterrent for those looking to move to Gates County. If 400-plus homeowners decide to move because of the jet noise, then that puts a big dent in our tax base and that affects us all.”

In presenting the facts, Brown said the Navy would need 2,000 “core” acres to build the landing field and another 25,000 acres of easement. He added that the Navy plans to narrow the list to three sites by Nov. 15.

“That doesn’t give us a lot of time to become better organized to fight this,” he said. “I would urge those citizens who are starting petition drives, and I saw many of you signing those petitions outside the courthouse tonight, that we need to remain united as one group with one voice.”

Brown suggested soliciting help from the neighboring counties of Pasquotank, Perquimans, Chowan and Camden as well as seeking advice from the other counties, particularly Washington, to fight the OLF. Navy officials had previously selected Washington County as the site for its OLF and had actually began the process of purchasing land before state and federal political leaders halted that process.

“The Navy will take the path of least resistance,” Brown concluded. “Gates County will not be that path.

The seven citizens invited to speak n Laura Dickerson, Paulette Wester, John Thomas Byrum, Deborah Vaughan, Donna Conner, Sharon Jones and Robin Gatling n each addressed the peace and tranquility they had grown to love in Gates County. All said that way of life will be taken away if the OLF comes to the county.

There will be an organizational meeting of the Citizens Against OLF at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30 at the Gates County High School football field. In case of inclement weather, the meeting will move indoors at the adjacent Gates County Community Center. County citizens are urged to attend.