Bye-bye OLF

Published 10:03 am Thursday, November 21, 2013

It’s over.

After several years with a cloud of uncertainty in regard to a potential Navy Outlying Landing Field (OLF) hanging over their heads, residents of Gates County, specifically those in the Sandbanks area as well as the Dory, Mason and Cabin Point communities in the Western Tidewater region of Virginia, can finally sleep a little easier.

The U.S. Navy has cancelled the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the OLF to be located in either Northeastern North Carolina or Southeastern Virginia. Since 2008, the Navy has been considering two OLF sites in North Carolina – the Sandbanks in Gates County and the Hales Lake area in Camden County – and three sites in Virginia – one entirely in Southampton County, one on the border of Southampton and Sussex counties and one within Surry County.

“I was tickled to death to hear the news about the Navy cancelling their plans and I feel certain that the citizens of this county are just as happy about this as I am,” said veteran Gates County Commissioner Kenneth “Kenny” Jernigan whose opposition vs. the OLF also hit close to home as his family farm is located in the Sandbanks area.

“We’ve fought this thing since day one,” Jernigan added. “If you remember, there were originally two sites the Navy was looking at in Gates County, to include the one near Hobbsville. Because the two sites were on opposite ends of the county, it really brought our citizens together; they were united against the OLF. We had numerous meetings here in the county and sent representation from our county to Raleigh to fight it.

“We also lobbied officials over in Hertford County to join us in our fight against the OLF,” Jernigan added. “With the Sandbanks right across the river from Winton, that town would be in the flight path of those low-flying jets.”

Jernigan said he had questioned all along if an OLF was really needed.

“With the Navy cancelling their plans, it tells me they didn’t need another practice facility,” Jernigan said.

Mike Johnson, Southampton County Administrator, was also ecstatic after the Navy made its decision public on Tuesday.

“It was gratifying that the Navy has seen fit to cancel this,” he told the Tidewater News in Franklin, VA. “Residents who have been waiting about what decisions to make with their homes for a little more than six years can breathe a collective sigh of relief.”

The environmental study had previously been suspended in January of 2011, pending the determination of a home base for the Joint Strike Fighter squadrons, or F-35 aircraft. The decision on where to base the squadrons has been delayed until at least 2017, Navy officials said in a news release.

Barry Steinberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney, said the Navy could consider the issue of placing an OLF in Western Tidewater after 2017 when it makes a decision regarding the F-35, although he doesn’t expect that.

“The fat lady has sung,” Steinberg told the Tidewater News.

Steinberg, who was hired by Southampton, Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Greensville counties (VA) to fight the OLF, said he was not too surprised about the announcement.

“In my judgment, the passage of time brought us to where we are today,” he said. “It was clear they were not prepared to make a decision on stationing the F-35. A lot of the data they had collected for the study was stale. Ecosystems are not static. I think it was the right decision, it is only tragic that it was not made three years ago.”

Steinberg said there are several dimensions to this, including political and budgetary issues, the underlying need of the base, and also the long-term viability of Naval Air Station Oceana.

Regarding political pressure, the five-county local coalition put up a fight that the Navy wasn’t expecting, said Steinberg, which set out to showcase that Virginia Beach would get all of the benefits of the naval base, and Western Tidewater would simply get the noise, while also losing 20,000 to 30,000 taxable acres.

There are also environmental and wildlife factors, in particular the bald eagle, which he said were significant, Steinberg said.

Meanwhile in Gates County, a Duke University study, as requested by a grassroots opposition group, cited environmental and wildlife factors as well in the Sandbanks area.

The F-35 itself is another reason, as it is over budget and delayed in production, Steinberg said. The Navy is also considering moving aircraft carriers to the West Coast. He said if one moves out of the Hampton Roads area, the issue is solved as far as needing an OLF, which could cost up to $500,000,000.

“There is a drumbeat to reduce the defense department budget, and there are issues with the F-35 on top of that,” Steinberg said. “There’s too much uncertainty, and too much opposition for the Navy to continue.”

He said there was at least one potential benefit in that the OLF would have created 65 jobs, including security and lawnmowers. However, most of these jobs would not employ local people. People would likely commute for the jobs, Steinberg added.

“People do not move their family for a job in Dory,” he said.

Steinberg, a retired army colonel, said there was never a question about the need for pilot proficiency.

“The skill and courage required of an aircraft carrier pilot is as highly valued as any single other military skill set that you can find,” he said. “You need to practice landing and taking off in a carrier. No one would argue that.”

If it was only practicing landing and taking off, Steinberg said there would not have been a fight.

“But when you take 30,000 acres of land that is taxable, prime for agriculture, and put it together with issues of roads, streams, forests and wildlife; and then you take a relatively quiet neighborhood that doesn’t have much nighttime noise at all, and you introduce supersonic jets that go in a circle over and over and make noise, people will fight it.”

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) applauded the Navy’s decision to cancel the OLF Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Hagan has long been opposed to an OLF in northeastern North Carolina. In 2010, she and Senator Burr included an amendment in the Defense Authorization Act that required the Navy to thoroughly evaluate all existing OLFs and military airfields before considering a new one. Hagan has held roundtables and public meetings with community leaders and concerned citizens in the region to discuss their opposition to an OLF.

“I am pleased that the Navy has canceled the Environmental Impact Statement for an OLF in northeastern North Carolina,” Hagan said. “The North Carolinians I speak with do not want an OLF in their backyards, and I have been working since my first day in the Senate to prevent it. I will continue to make the case in Congress that the Navy must not build an OLF in northeastern North Carolina.”

The OLF issue has been hanging over the heads of Eastern North Carolina and southside Virginia since 2002. At that time, the original Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement targeted five alternatives – sites in

Bertie (Merry Hill/Midway area), Craven, Hyde, Perquimans and Washington/Beaufort counties. Those areas were removed from consideration in January 2008.

When the Navy shifted its focus to Gates County that same year, 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.

“Right from the start, Citizens Against OLF played a big role in unifying the citizens of Gates County; they were at the forefront of our long fight to convince the Navy that our county was not receptive to the idea of putting their OLF here,” Jernigan said. “I commended them for their efforts at that time and I commend them today, especially after the news we all received on Tuesday of this week. Their fight, our fight was not in vain.”

Currently, the Navy uses Fentress Field in Virginia Beach as their OLF. Navy officials cited capacity shortfalls continue to present challenges at Fentress to meeting current training requirements under both routine and surge conditions for existing Navy aircraft.