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Bomb threat fails to derail anti-OLF spirit

ELIZABETH CITY – It’s been over one month since the Navy and North Carolina officials dropped a bomb, figuratively speaking, concerning six new possible sites for an OLF (Outlying Landing Field) in the Tar Heel state, including two in Gates County.

On Tuesday afternoon, not even the threat of a real bomb could keep hundreds of citizens from attending a meeting of the OLF Study Group.

After members of the Elizabeth City Police Department, acting upon a phoned-in threat, found no evidence of a bomb in the Mickey L. Burnim Fine Arts Center on the campus of Elizabeth City State University, the much-anticipated meeting got underway about 35 minutes behind schedule.

Once inside the spacious center, it didn’t take long to figure out that the well-behaved crowd was 100 percent in opposition of the Navy’s plans to possibly construct and operate an OLF in northeastern North Carolina.

But first, the OLF Study Group, which included North Carolina DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) Secretary Bill Ross and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David Anderson, touched on how the six new possible OLF sites in North Carolina were selected.

According to Ross, the Study Group looked for areas close to the home base (Oceana, Va. Naval Air Station) of the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter squadrons. Those areas, which include the Sand Banks and Old Railroad Grade (Sandy Cross community) sites in Gates County and the Northwest River and Hale’s Lake sites in Camden County, need to be primarily free of ground lights to help simulate landings on an aircraft carrier.

“We went to the Navy and suggested that we open dialogue on this,” Secretary Ross said after referencing the Navy’s failed attempt to site an OLF in Washington County. “Both parties discussed ideas and exchanged information. We want to put the best information we can into the Navy’s hands so they can make the best decision.”

Admiral Anderson said a second OLF was needed (the Oceana squadrons now use Fentress Field, located near the base) due to the high number of pilots deployed with aircraft carrier groups all over the world.

“We need another OLF because we need to train more than one carrier group at a time,” Admiral Anderson noted.

He added there were eight Super Hornet squadrons based at Oceana and two at the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point. However, the training program, he said, was based out of Oceana.

In regards to where that second OLF will be sited, Admiral Anderson said the selection will be among the six new sites in North Carolina and 10 possible locations in Virginia. He added that “on or about Nov. 15” the Navy will decide which of these sites bear further investigation and analysis.

This much is known as of today….the Navy will require approximately 25,000-to-30,000 acres for the entire facility, which includes buffer areas. Only 2,000 acres would be used for the core area, which would include an 8,000-foot runway, air traffic control tower, support buildings and land managed for flight safety.

Residents currently living in either the core area or the adjacent Sector 1 (roughly 8,200 acres which lies along the flight corridor) would have their property purchased by the Navy and would have to relocate. Residents living within Sector 2 (8,700 acres) or Sector 3 (7,500 acres) may fall under consideration to have their property purchased.

In the two areas under consideration in Gates County, the Sand Banks region has a population of 453 residents within the site boundary while the Old Railroad Grade site lists an estimated population of 435.

“We’re focusing on how we can change some of our requirements to best fit you,” Admiral Anderson said. “If there’s just one family affected, we want to know what we can do to make their lives better.”

Judging from selected comments from those in the audience, which included a large contingent from Gates County, what would make their lives better would be for the Navy to take their OLF elsewhere, most preferably for it to be in Virginia.

“An OLF will forever change our peaceful, easy lifestyle,” Gates County Commissioner David Brown said as he addressed the Study Group panel. “Forty-nine percent of our revenue is linked to property values. Losing more of our property will erode our tax base and that will prove as a disaster to this little piece of heaven we call home.”

Gates County resident Jackie Lewis Bundy urged the Navy to put the OLF in Virginia, suggesting existing military land at Fort Pickett located near Petersburg, Va.

“I see no need for an OLF anywhere in northeastern North Carolina,” Bundy said. “Why does the Navy want to destroy such a beautiful place? What we have in Gates County is priceless.”

Another county resident, James Sears, spoke of the proud heritage of Gates County, saying the roots of its people run deep into the fertile soil.

“We appreciate our heritage and want to continue our heritage,” Sears said.

Deborah Vaughan recalled the year 1984 when a roar came through Gates County in the form of a tornado.

“That roar was short-lived,” she said. “The roar that will come with an OLF will last forever.”

Vaughan added that in 2003-04, CAMA (Coastal Area Management) officials, formulating a land use plan, stated that the two exact areas now possible targets for an OLF in Gates County should be protected.

“They (CAMA) and our governor have said this land is priceless, so why is it now the target of an OLF,” quizzed Vaughan.

Dr. Douglas Freeman, a Gates County native now residing in Raleigh, said, “The loss of land and people from our tax base will severely erode the county government’s ability to provide for the remainder of the citizens.”

“We are real people, not some dot on a map,” stressed Linda Warren who lives in the Sand Banks area.

Sally Hardy scolded the OLF Study Group and Admiral Anderson, saying the process to select an alternate site was private.

“We had no clue this was coming,” Hardy said. “If you want to know why people don’t vote, don’t trust their government and think this is already a done deal no matter what we say, then look no further than this Study Group.”

Two Gates County High School students, Jennifer Powell and Rachel Lilley, presented the panel a petition bearing 2,047 names of those opposing an OLF anywhere in northeastern North Carolina.

The next meeting of the Governor’s OLF Study Group is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Nov. 1 in Raleigh.