State won’t ‘push’ Navy airfield on Southampton

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2007

COURTLAND—If Southampton wants to be removed from a list of potential Virginia sites for a new practice landing facility for Navy jets, all it has to do is ask.

Virginia officials assured county residents and supervisors Monday night that the state has no interest in &uot;push(ing) any community into the arms of the Navy.&uot;

&uot;The governor is not going to compel uninterested communities into negotiations with the Navy,&uot; said Robert P. Crouch Jr., assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness.

Crouch and his deputy, Steven Mondul, spoke to the Board of Supervisors and more than 500 interested citizens Monday evening in the auditorium at Southampton High School. They answered some questions and told supervisors the county has the next move as the Navy continues to evaluate potential locations for the touch-and-go airfield in Virginia and North Carolina.

Judging from applause, as well as an unofficial and unscientific poll completed on the site, members of the audience were overwhelmingly opposed to Southampton being considered for the airfield.

The board declined to vote on the matter Monday, however, opting instead to try to get more information about the proposed airfield and its potential positive and negative effects on the county. Five of the seven board members plan to attend a special briefing at Oceana next week.

Still, the questions they posed to Crouch and Mondul indicated most board members are skeptical of the idea, at best, and none seemed happy with the fact that they were not given advance notice about Southampton’s inclusion on the list.

&uot;We felt like the Navy just dropped a bomb on us,&uot; Capron District Supervisor Moses Wyche commented, adding that he estimated &uot;99 percent&uot; of the people in his district are opposed to the airfield.

Berlin-Ivor District Supervisor Ronald M. West said the airfield would be &uot;a hard pill to swallow.&uot; He said Chesapeake and Virginia Beach &uot;brought this on themselves&uot; by allowing development to encroach on runways at Oceana Naval Air Station and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress. That comment drew loud and long applause from the otherwise quiet and attentive audience.

&uot;Nobody’s asking you to swallow the pill,&uot; Crouch replied. &uot;What we’re asking is that you be open-minded.&uot;

Earlier in his presentation, Crouch told supervisors that the governor is worried about losing the base at Oceana if a suitable landing facility — in either Virginia or North Carolina — cannot be found.

&uot;We want to keep a naval presence in Virginia,&uot; he said. &uot;We’re concerned that there will be this big sucking sound of squadrons leaving Oceana if (the auxiliary airfield) moves too far away.&uot;

He added that some communities, including Kingsville, Texas, had expressed an interest in hosting the naval base during the last round of negotiations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Oceana had been slated for closure at that time, but Jacksonville, Fla., residents bucked a plan that would have re-opened Cecil Field there for use as the East Coast’s master jet base. The Navy announced in January that recent actions by Virginia Beach to limit encroachment in the corridor between Oceana and Fentress would help assure that the jet base would remain in Virginia Beach.

Nonetheless, so-called &uot;surge operations&uot; in support of the War on Terror have been hindered by the conditions around Fentress, prompting the Navy to step up its search for an outlying airfield to support its training in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.

Its favored site — in Washington County, N.C. — met with stiff opposition from environmental groups and received recent setbacks in court, prompting the Navy to ask Virginia and North Carolina to develop lists of alternative sites.

Virginia’s 10 sites include four that are wholly or partially in Southampton County. The list of sites was presented to the Navy and made public July 10. North Carolina officials have declined to identify the sites they chose to present to the Navy.

The sites in Virginia — all within about 100 miles of Oceana — were chosen because of their low population density, their flat land and their undeveloped character.

The agricultural nature of the sites would be largely unaffected, said Mondul, who is a former Navy pilot in addition to his duties working for the governor’s Office on Commonwealth Preparedness.

He explained that the Navy would buy easements from farmers with surrounding property, allowing the land to be farmed and hunted, but not otherwise developed.

State officials are mindful of the possibility that none of the communities represented on their site list will be interested in hosting the proposed facility, but they are doubtful the government would exercise its power of eminent domain to take land or force a community to host the airfield.

&uot;That would be a last resort,&uot; Mondul said. &uot;They would rather leave than do that.&uot;

&uot;There are other parts of the country that will make it work if we can’t make it work here in the mid-Atlantic region,&uot; Crouch added.

In that case, Oceana would be likely to lose its squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets, as well as the 12,000 jobs the base provides.