Opposition steers Navy back to its first choice

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 2, 2007

VIRGINIA BEACH—Widespread opposition to potential Virginia and North Carolina practice landing sites for its fighter jets would likely lead the Navy to redouble its efforts to locate an outlying landing field in Washington County, N.C.

The Navy would rather fight for its original site in court than force another unwilling community to host the landing strip, according to Rear Adm.David Anderson of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command.

Anderson and Capt. Patrick J. Lorge, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Oceana, played host on Monday to representatives from Southampton, Sussex and Nottoway counties and the Town of Blackstone in an event organized by U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (VA-04).

The municipalities are among five Virginia counties with property that state and federal officials suggested to the Navy as potential OLF sites. In mid-July, the Office on Commonwealth Preparedness submitted a list of 10 sites in and around Southside Virginia that met a broad range of criteria.

Prior to that offering, Sen. John Warner had asked that the Navy consider Fort Pickett, near Blackstone, as a potential location for an auxiliary landing field to supplement operations at the existing Naval Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake.

Representatives from those counties in Forbes’ district were invited to an informational meeting at Oceana on Monday, where they watched simulated landings of the F/A-18 Super Hornets that would use the new airstrip and heard a presentation on the details of the proposal.

Some, including Southampton Board of Supervisors Chairman Dallas O. Jones, took a helicopter ride to Fentress to see the effects of encroachment on that practice landing strip. A second helicopter trip for the remainder of the group was cancelled because of storms.

It was during a question-and-answer session after lunch in the base’s Officer’s Club that Adm. Anderson told the 30 or so local-government representatives that the Navy feels confident about its chances in court if it is forced to press ahead with the Washington County, N.C., site, or one of four others it identified early in the process that began back in 1999.

&uot;If all of this work comes back and it fails,&uot; Anderson said about the recently identified sites in Virginia and North Carolina, &uot;we’re going after Washington County.&uot;

The question-and-answer session came at the end of a day that started with local officials being driven by bus from a parking lot just inside the gates of Oceana to a building that houses pilot briefing rooms and Super Hornet flight simulators.

In a large briefing room, Navy representatives from Oceana and the Fleet Forces Command joined Forbes and his assistants in welcoming the delegations. Attending from Southampton were Chairman Jones and Supervisors Anita Felts of the Jerusalem District and Walt Brown of the Newsoms District, along with County Administrator Michael Johnson.

Noting the fact that the original choice of Washington County, N.C., for the OLF led to lawsuits and bitter contention from environmentalists and residents, Anderson told those attending, &uot;We have come to believe more than ever that a dialogue is important.&uot;

Forbes then complimented those who attended, noting &uot;If you have the facts, you can make good decisions for your constituents.&uot;

PowerPoint presentations by the Navy showed that the new landing strip would support the Navy’s training of Super Hornet pilots by hosting an expected 13,600 landings per year, broken down into one or two 45-minute sessions per day, when four or five aircraft would perform eight to 10 landings and take-offs.

About 70 percent of the operations would occur after sunset, and training would normally be confined to the period between Sunday evening and Friday afternoon. But the facility would need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to allow for so-called &uot;surge training&uot; in support of pending deployments.

Navy officials said that, depending on the site chosen, the core area actually owned by the Navy could be as small as 2,000 acres, with some surrounding acreage subject to the purchase of restrictive use easements that would allow most agricultural and hunting uses but would forbid most development.

The Navy would pay for those easements, as well as for buying property and relocating homeowners and businesses within the most restrictive of its &uot;clear zones&uot; and accident potential zones.

Acknowledging that the Navy had played a role in allowing the development that encroaches on Oceana and Fentress, contributing to the need for a second OLF, Anderson said, &uot;The Navy has not always managed this as well as we should have.&uot;

&uot;We are very good at dropping bombs and fighting wars, but we’re not very good at running a business,&uot; he said.

Until recently, for example, officials had not kept an eye on what type of facilities were being built around Oceana, despite the fact that the Navy held development easements on much of the property around the base. Consequently, some undesirable businesses — such as a gymnastics school — were built within zones that should have been kept free of such development.

Those issues, along with the pressing need for training in support of the War on Terror, prompted the Navy to begin looking for an OLF. But &uot;unprecedented resistance&uot; to the original sites the Navy identified in North Carolina caused officials to begin looking elsewhere.

Fort Pickett, Anderson said, was put forward by Sen. Warner’s office early in the process, a revelation that seemed not to sit well with some attending from that area.

&uot;We’ve been under a microscope, and nobody told us we’re being looked at,&uot; Blackstone Mayor William D. Coleburn said.

Though it currently hosts a military base with an airfield, Anderson said, Fort Pickett would not necessarily be a good fit for the Navy. &uot;The thing we’re concerned about with Fort Pickett is all the other (military training) activity that takes place there,&uot; he said. &uot;Will they be able to continue that activity?&uot;

Anderson’s advice to local officials Monday was for them to be in contact with the state about their concerns related to the proposed airfield.

&uot;If your community doesn’t want this, then we want to get it off the list early,&uot; he said. &uot;We will take a site that will be less optimal for us if it winds up being more acceptable for the community.&uot;

He said Virginia and North Carolina officials have been asked to remove communities unwilling to host the landing field from their lists before Sept. 15. At that time, Fleet Forces Command will make a recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy for more study on whatever sites are left that fit the Navy’s needs.