Navy suspends OLF plans

Published 10:44 am Friday, January 28, 2011

The U.S. Navy has opted to delay its plans, for at least three years, to construct an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in northeastern North Carolina or southside Virginia.

The announcement was made in a Thursday afternoon e-mail sent from Navy spokesperson Ted Brown to Gates County Manager Toby Chappell.

“This email is to provide your office notice of the Navy’s decision to suspend release and stop work on the OLF DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) for Construction and Operation of an Outlying Landing Field,” the e-mail began.

“The Navy has made the decision to initially focus its efforts on home basing the Navy JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) on the west coast, in accordance with the QDR direction and the JSF Transition Plan which places squadrons on the west coast first.  Initial Navy JSF squadrons (and the Fleet Replacement Squadron) are proposed to be based on the west coast beginning in 2015.  The East Coast JSF Basing EIS will commence at a time to be determined, but no earlier than 2014,” the e-mail continued.

The Sandbanks area of Gates County is among five possible OLF sites. The others are near the Camden-Currituck County line and Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties in southeastern Virginia. Local government entities in each of those counties were notified in the fall of 2007 of the Navy’s plans to possibly build a jet landing practice facility in one of those locations.

Since that time, Gates County citizens and local government officials made it clear they were opposed to the Navy’s plans. Citizens Against OLF was formed and, aided by the Gates County Board of Commissioners and other local leaders, solicited the support of state and federal legislators in an effort to steer the Navy away from the Sandbanks.

“We wish it was canceled all together, but we hope this is a step in the right direction,” said Laura Dickerson of Gatesville, one of the organizers of Citizens Against OLF.

Dickerson said the group meets every other month. They are scheduled to meet with U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at the Gates County Library.

Another longtime opponent of the proposed OLF in the Sandbanks is Kenneth Jernigan, Vice-Chairman of the Gates County Board of Commissioners.

“I’m tickled to learn that the OLF isn’t coming anytime in the near future, but I would feel a lot better if the Navy would take Gates County completely off their list of possible sites,” Jernigan said. “We’ve been fighting this for a long time and we need some closure. It would be nice to allow our citizens to breathe a bit easier on this and re-focus on the plans they had for their property prior to the OLF issue coming up over three years ago.”

Both local state legislators – District 4 Senator Ed Jones and District 5 Representative Annie Mobley – expressed their opposition to the OLF plans, as did Congressman Butterfield and U.S. Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kay Hagan (D-NC).

“I am thrilled that the Navy is suspending and stopping work on the Outlying Landing Field Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” Senator Hagan said in a press release sent late Thursday afternoon. “We do not want an OLF in Northeastern North Carolina. The people I meet with are absolutely outraged at the prospect of an OLF in their backyards, and I have been working to prevent it.

“The Navy should thoroughly evaluate all existing OLFs and military airfields before even considering a new one, and this is exactly what Senator Burr and I required the Navy to do in our amendment to last year’s defense authorization bill,” she added. “I will continue to make the case in Congress that the Navy must not build an OLF in Northeastern North Carolina.”

While the stoppage of the DEIS was well received by many on Thursday, the Navy left the JSF east coast basing and OLF issues open for the future.

“In recognition of the fact that the JSF east coast basing EIS will not be initiated until 2014, the Navy is suspending release of and stopping work on the OLF DEIS until the east coast JSF basing and training requirements are better defined through the development of the east coast basing EIS,” said Thursday’s press release from Brown. “At that time, Navy will re-evaluate the OLF requirement and potential east coast JSF home basing locations.”

The release further stated, “Fentress (Field, the Navy’s current OLF located in Virginia Beach) capacity shortfalls continue to present challenges to meeting current training requirements under both routine and surge conditions for existing Navy aircraft.  Nonetheless, the Navy will continue to take the necessary measures to ensure it meets all of its training commitments by using available facilities, both in and out of the local training area.”

In the initial stages of the OLF plans, the Navy had set August 2009 for the release of the DEIS. Those plans were delayed based on what the Navy said at that time….““Various delays have pushed the OLF timeline to the point that it will now coincide with the commencement of the EIS process for homebasing of the F-35C Navy Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). As Naval Air Station Oceana (Va.) is the East Coast master jet base and the home for the F/A-18 C/D aircraft, the Navy will likely consider whether it should be identified as a potential candidate site for the JSF.”

The Navy also announced on Thursday its intention to publish a Notice of Intent on Friday in the Federal Register announcing its intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will evaluate the potential environmental effects associated with basing the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft on the West Coast of the United States.

“Under this proposal, a total of seven active-duty F/A-18C Hornet squadrons and one fleet replacement squadron (FRS) (a total of 100 aircraft) will progressively transition from the F/A-18C Hornet aircraft to the more advanced F-35C JSF beginning in 2015.  This transition will occur as a one-for-one replacement,” said the press release issued by LT. Paul Macapagal, Navy spokesperson.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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