Navy airfield a hot topic in county

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 17, 2007

COURTLAND—It wasn’t even on the agenda. The news about it had broken just two days earlier. But the possibility of Southampton hosting an auxiliary landing field for Navy fighter planes dominated discussion at the Planning Commission’s meeting Thursday.

Judging by the commissioners’ comments, the topic is on the lips of people all over the county.

&uot;I’ve been out of the county all day, and in one hour back in the county, I spent 45 minutes talking to people about it,&uot; said J. Michael Mann.

&uot;I’ve had a lot of phone calls today,&uot; Michael G. Drake concurred. &uot;People are very concerned. It’s going to be a big issue.&uot;

In fact, commissioners and others attending Thursday’s meeting suggested that an informational session with state representatives, planned for the Board of Supervisors’ July 23 meeting, be moved to a venue with more seats.

Members of the governor’s Office of Commonwealth Preparedness are expected to make a presentation during that meeting. It will be the first time that county staff or elected officials have been involved in the process, a fact which Assistant County Administrator Jay Randolph took great pains to make — and then reiterate — to the planners.

&uot;We were completely left in the dark by the governor’s office,&uot; Randolph said, noting that the preparedness office had notified county staff of the proposed Southampton sites just five minutes before members of the media began calling for comment.

&uot;I was a little disappointed in the governor’s office,&uot; he added.

On Tuesday representatives of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine put forward 10 Virginia sites for consideration by the U.S. Navy as potential locations for a new 8,000-foot runway that would be used to augment touch-and-go training that now takes place at Oceana Naval Air Station and at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field.

The facility would be used by eight to 10 squadrons of F/A-18E/F &uot;Super Hornets, completing an estimated 2,200 arrivals and 13,600 touch-and-go patterns at the airstrip each year.

Four of the 10 Virginia sites lie within Southampton County or along its border with Sussex. Three others are in Surry County, one is in Greensville, one is wholly in Sussex, and one is in King and Queen.

Virginia officials identified the sites based on a survey completed using the Department of Forestry’s geographic information system.

North Carolina completed a similar investigation of potential sites, but Gov. Mike Easley has asked that the list be kept private, according to Navy officials.

The Navy asked officials from both sites to develop a list of potential sites about six weeks ago, after suffering years of legal and environmental setbacks over its preferred location in Washington County, N.C.

Rear Admiral David Anderson, vice commander of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, said the 60-day process that follows the sites’ announcement will be heavily weighted toward giving the public a chance to speak its mind.

&uot;We’re hoping that, within the Department of Defense, we’re going to have a new way of doing business,&uot; he said.

In Southampton, Randolph stressed Thursday that the informational session during the July 23 supervisors meeting would not be a public hearing. Rather, it will be a chance for the governor’s office to give the county more information about its inclusion on the list.

Judging from comments during the Planning Commission meeting, the governor has an uphill battle to convince Southampton to willingly go along with the proposed project.

&uot;As far as I’m concerned, there’s a hundred reasons not to want it,&uot; said Newsoms resident Glenn Updike, who raised the issue during the public comment portion of the commission’s meeting.

Updike suggested that the county move quickly to register its desire to be removed from the list of potential airfield sites.

&uot;We just need to tell them it’s not in our comprehensive plan,&uot; Chairman Alan W. Edwards quipped.

Dallas Jones, who serves on the Planning Commission and is also chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the issue had been raised several years ago and that supervisors had said they &uot;didn’t want any part of it.&uot;

County Administrator Mike Johnson said Friday a discussion was held in 2001 or 2002 during a portion of a board meeting that was closed for discussion of economic development issues, as allowed by state law.

Although &uot;the unanimous consensus was that we don’t want it,&uot; he said, three new supervisors — Moses Wyche, Anita Felts and Walt Brown — have started terms since that time.

At least one Planning Commission member, however, seemed unwilling to condemn the potential Navy project so soon.

&uot;Where would y’all have them put it?&uot; Ira H. &uot;Pete&uot; Barham asked as commissioners took their turns expressing opposition to the airfield. &uot;China?&uot;