State weighs Navy airfield

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2007

Southampton officials are hoping a meeting later this month with representatives from the governor’s office will help shed more light on a report that named four county sites as potential locations for an auxiliary Navy runway.

Two staffers from the governor’s Office of Commonwealth Preparedness will attend the Board of Supervisors’ meeting later this month to explain how Southampton sites came to be on a list of proposed Outlying Landing Fields.

State officials presented a list of 10 rural locations Tuesday in response to a request by the Navy to identify potential alternatives to its preferred site in Washington County, N.C.

The North Carolina location has drawn staunch opposition from local residents and environmentalists, forcing the Navy to reevaluate its options and postponing the expected opening date of the facility, which would supplement development-pressured Fentress Airfield in Chesapeake.

Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress, which opened in 1940, provides an off-base area for Oceana-based jet pilots to practice take-offs and landings. Thousands of so-called Field Carrier Landing Practice operations are practiced there each year, according to Navy officials.

As Chesapeake’s residential encroachment — and its associated light pollution — around Fentress continued to degrade the mission of the airfield, the Navy sought a complementary outlying landing field. Officials settled on the 30,000-acre North Carolina site, spanning portions of Washington and Beaufort counties, in 2003. But its development has been restrained by protests and lawsuits ever since.

Southampton County found itself involved this week when Virginia officials met with Navy representatives to make a case for the airfield to be located in rural Virginia. A list of 10 potential sites, identified through a Department of Forestry geographic information system, included several possibilities in and around Southampton County.

“What is really encouraging to me is how the state of Virginia has really embraced trying to help us find a way to come up with a solution,” Rear Admiral David Anderson, vice commander of the Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk said Thursday.

State officials, he said, “are really moving forward to take care of their constituents and help us to protect national security at the same time.”

After a federal court decision that forced it to re-address environmental issues connected with its preferred North Carolina site, the Navy decided to begin looking at other potential sites, both in North Carolina and Virginia.

Anderson said both state governments have been allowed to complete the process of identifying additional sites on their own terms. Virginia chose to release its list of potential sites, while North Carolina has asked that its list be kept private, he said.

Forested and agricultural areas of at least 2,000 acres were identified for Virginia’s presentation if they had a three-kilometer buffer, a population density of fewer than 50 people per square mile, and if they were projected to have housing densities in 2030 that would still classify them as rural.

Of the 10 Virginia sites identified by the survey, three are located wholly within Southampton County and one straddles the Southampton/Sussex border.

Three other sites proposed for consideration are located in Surry, one is in Sussex, one is in Greensville and one is in King and Queen.

The sites range from 2,683 to 39,555 acres, with the largest one located centrally along the Southampton-Sussex border.

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said Thursday that he had been unaware of Southampton’s presence on the list until he got a call Tuesday afternoon from the preparedness office.

Since the issue is new to Southampton, it is impossible to say whether Southampton would support an outlying landing field within its borders, Johnson said.

“We’ve had no discussions with the Navy or with the governor’s office, so we have no feeling about the potential benefits or dangers,” he explained.

The Board of Supervisors’ July 23 meeting will give both local and state officials a chance to examine information from the Navy regarding OLF operations and the estimated socioeconomic impacts of the facility.

Anderson said the negative experience with its original preferred site in North Carolina had taught the Navy a lesson about how important a community could be to the success of a project.

Now that Virginia and North Carolina have submitted their site lists, he explained, there will be a 60-day period in which the Navy seeks as much public input as it can get, largely through the government offices that spearheaded site selection.

“It’s not just us taking 10 sites, going behind closed doors and coming back” with a decision, he said. Between now and Sept. 15, there will be a “constant stream of communication about these 10 sites.”