Residents of Camden and Gates counties said the Navy's plans to build a practice airfield would damage the rural quality of life in the northeastern corner of the state.
The Navy, stung by opposition to its preferred site near a wildlife refuge, is reviewing six additional sites in Eastern North Carolina and 10 in Virginia for a landing strip it wants to build so jet pilots can simulate night landings on aircraft carriers.
Two of the additional sites the state has suggested are in rural Gates County, and two are in Camden County. They are 20 to 50 miles from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., the base for most of the squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets that would use the airfield. Two other squadrons would be based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock.
A task force appointed by Gov. Mike Easley to provide a forum for discussion about the proposed airfield met Thursday to hear from Gates and Camden counties.
"I think we are being picked on because we are small and poor and no one thinks we have the power to fight this battle," said Melinda Hoggard, interim manager in Gates County, a predominantly agricultural county that produces cotton, peanuts, soybeans and poultry and has no four-lane roads.
Hoggard estimated that the acreage used for an airstrip would take $25 million to $30 million in land value from the county's $500 million tax base.
Jeff Jennings, chairman of the commissioners in Camden County nearby, said one of the sites being considered would take his potato farm. Jennings said the land was productive, though flood-prone.
"Basically, it would put me out of business and my neighbors," Jennings said. "We are totally against it at any level."
Ted Morris, associate vice chancellor for economic development at East Carolina University, told the task force that the airstrip would provide 52 jobs, all nonmilitary, with an annual payroll of $2.8 million. Morris said the average salary would be about $53,600.
"From a salary standpoint, these would be relatively high- paying jobs in these counties," Morris said. The jobs were "a relatively small number."
Hugh Overholt, a retired Army general and representative of Allies for Cherry Point's Tomorrow, a group of civic and business leaders that advocates for the base, said he didn't think North Carolina would receive the two squadrons of Super Hornets if it didn't accept an airfield. He said the squadrons would add about $60 million to the economy around Cherry Point.
"We have got to help the Department of Navy find a suitable place to train our aviators," Overholt said. "We've got to find a way to work this out. Let's look at the bigger picture.
The Navy named its preferred site in 2003 -- a tract straddling Washington and Beaufort counties near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. But political opposition by state leaders and the congressional delegation eventually forced the Navy to look for other sites.
The secretary of the Navy is scheduled to decide by mid-November which sites will get 18 to 24 months of in-depth environmental studies. David Anderson, vice commander of Fleet Forces Command, said the Navy wants to work with an area to improve the local economy and find ways to help a community.
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