When the Navy released its revised environmental study of five sites for a proposed outlying landing field in North Carolina in early 2007, its sites were still set on Washington and Beaufort Counties. Almost a year later, the number of possible locations for the OLF has more than quadrupled and Navy brass has launched an “excursion” to find an alternate site for the pilot practice field.
In February the Navy released its court-ordered draft supplemental environmental impact statement, which named Site C, on the border of Washington and Beaufort Counties, as its preferred site for the OLF.
A series of seven court-ordered public hearings hosted by the Navy followed. During the hearings, Navy officers heard overwhelming local opposition to building an OLF at Site C because of its proximity to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Less than five miles east of Site C, the refuge is the winter home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl that routinely forage in neighboring fields. Environmental groups contend that the birds are vulnerable to Navy jets and pose a threat to Navy pilots who would land at the OLF.
One by one, members of the state’s Congressional Delegation declared their opposition to an OLF at Site C, though Sen. Elizabeth Dole had not taken a position in April when the Navy hosted a public hearing in Washington County. Dole lobbied for the Navy to hold a hearing in Charlotte so residents in other parts of the state could weigh in on the issue. Following that hearing she too declared her opposition to an OLF at Site C.
A final record of decision on where to locate the OLF would typically have been the Navy’s next move. Instead, Rear Adm. David Anderson, the Navy’s top officer on the OLF project, made a “paradigm shift” in the way the Navy does business. Launching what Anderson has repeatedly called an “excursion” to explore the “art of the possible,” he and his staff began looking for an alternative to the embattled Site C.
In September, Gov. Mike Easley reactivated his OLF study group, an appointed task force of state and local officials, including Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill and Washington County Manager David Peoples. The group was first formed in 2004 to study the impact of an OLF in North Carolina.
At the study group’s first meeting Sept. 18, Anderson released a list of six alternative sites to the Navy’s preferred Site C. Two sites of those sites are in Gates County and two are in Camden County in the northeast portion of the state. Two other sites are in southeastern North Carolina. They are Angola Bay in Duplin and Pender counties and Hofman Forest, land owned primarily by N.C. State University in Jones and Onslow counties. Eleven sites were also proposed in Virginia, bringing the total number of possible sites to 22. A decision whether to formally consider any of the new sites from Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter is expected this year.
“The perception has been that we went out and planted our flag and challenged everyone to come and knock it down,” Anderson said at the meeting. “We would wrap ourselves in the flag and say ‘we are trying to protect your sons and daughters,’ which gave us an air of arrogance. That is what we are trying to reverse ... the paradigm shift we are trying to make.”
The study groups met four times in Raleigh and held a public hearing in Elizabeth City in October. Public sentiment about the six new sites mirrored that heard in opposition to Site C earlier in the year. Based on a letter from study group Chairman Sidney Eagles Jr. detailing the group’s conclusions, Easley recommended that the Navy consider even more sites.
“The Navy has completely changed the package so that Virginia gets the gold mine and we get the shaft,” Easley said.
When an OLF is built, the Navy has decided to base two Super Hornet squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock while nine squadrons will be based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va. The Navy has said the two squadrons could bring more than $60 million to the Craven County economy, while the OLF would bring only 52 civilian jobs to the economy where the field is eventually located, according to Anderson.
Washington and Beaufort county residents’ fears of an OLF at Site C were officially quelled in December when Congress voted to cut the Navy’s purse strings. The defense authorization bill passed with language stating that “None of the funds in this title shall be used for any activity related to the construction of an outlying landing field in Washington County, North Carolina.”
The president vetoed the bill, but not because of the OLF provision. Congress will need to resubmit it this year.