Navy targets Gates County

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The reaction was as different as day and night.

Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter on Tuesday narrowed a list to a pair of North Carolina sites and three in Virginia that the Navy will consider for the location of an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) for Naval Air Station Oceana.

One of the two North Carolina sites is the SandBanks area of Gates County. The other is the Hale’s Lake area that straddles the Camden/Currituck County line.

In Virginia, the Navy has narrowed the list to sites in the counties of Surry (Cabin’s Point, northeast of US 460), Sussex (Mason, north of US 58 near Drewryville) and Southampton (Dory, east of Highway 35 near Sebrell).

According to the Navy, the North Carolina and Virginia sites will now be evaluated in a 24-30 month Environmental Impact Study (EIS) process, which involves public hearings and additional analysis of the suitability of the locations for an OLF.

Meanwhile, in response to the public and political opposition to the sites examined in its original Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS), one dating back to 2002, the Navy formally announced on Tuesday a plan to terminate the DSEIS and initiate a new EIS that analyzes five new OLF site alternatives.  The five sites analyzed in the DSEIS (Bertie, Craven, Hyde, Perquimans and Washington/Beaufort counties) are no longer under consideration as potential OLF sites. The Bertie site was located near the Midway/Merry Hill area.

“Bertie County is fortunate to have county commissioners and other residents who have worked consistently during the past six years to oppose the OLF,” Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said. “From day one, the commissioners have been united in their strong and unwavering opposition to the OLF.

Future generations of Bertie County residents will benefit from the efforts of our county leadership on this issue.

The citizens of Bertie County also deserve credit for their vocal and clear opposition to the OLF.”

While Tuesday’s news was good for Bertie County, it was met with the opposite reaction in Gates County.

“We’re disappointed and at the same time very surprised to hear that news,” Gates County Board of Commissioners Chairman J.S. Pierce said. “Honestly, we thought the support we had from Governor Easley and our senators, (Elizabeth) Dole and (Richard) Burr, that both our sites here in Gates County might be eliminated (from the Navy’s list). I guess that’s why I’m so surprised that the SandBanks area was among the five sites the Navy will continue to study.”

Pierce went on to say that Gates County officials will continue in their efforts to keep the OLF out of the SandBanks, an area off US 13 across the Chowan River from Hertford County.

“We’ll do what we’ve been doing all along and that’s to solicit help from our federal and state officials,” Pierce concluded. “We don’t want to see anyone displaced by this. We may be a small and rural county, but the Navy doesn’t have enough money to pay for the sentimental value of these homes and farms that have been in a family’s possession for years and years.”

“We are certainly disappointed, especially after so many people worked so hard to convey our opposition,” Laura Dickerson of Gatesville, spokesperson for Citizens Against OLF.

“We are also disappointed that the Secretary of the Navy failed to consider the advice of our Governor, state senators and congressmen.

They have all repeatedly said that the OLF must have ‘broad local support’ to be acceptable.

Neither North Carolina site has broad local support. Now taxpayers will have to pay millions for five more environmental studies.”

“Based on my extensive discussions with officials and residents in Gates, Camden and Currituck counties, it is clear that the Navy’s proposal to locate an OLF at those sites will be met with considerable resistance,” said Senator Dole (R-NC). “It is my understanding that the Navy has yet to consult with local leaders in these three counties, which I find very discouraging. Broad local support for an OLF is essential and as I have assured North Carolinians and advised the Navy, I will oppose the Navy’s efforts to acquire any site in North Carolina that fails to meet this standard.”

In his Tuesday press release, Secretary Winter commended Virginia and North Carolina leadership for their cooperation in collecting and providing new information about locations within their respective states.

In regards to the five new sites under consideration, Winter said based on the evaluation of available information, those locations each have operational, environmental and population characteristics that make them viable alternatives for further analysis.

These five alternative sites, as well as the no action alternative, will be fully evaluated in a new EIS in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act before making any further decision on constructing an additional OLF.

Throughout this process the Navy will continue to work closely with the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of North Carolina on these new sites and the Congress on this matter. As worded in the press release, “the Navy believes that by working with state and local officials, we can understand their perspective on the issues and seek common ground on ways to mitigate impacts and identify potential benefits.”

The OLF is used to support Field Carrier Landing Practice operations of Carrier Air Wing aircraft based at NAS Oceana.