Counties unanimous in opposing Navy airfield

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 20, 2007

FRANKLIN—Thursday night, it became official. Nobody wants an outlying landing field.

A vote by the Sussex County Board of Supervisors made that county the last of five Virginia municipalities to take an official stand against a Navy practice airfield.

The governor had proposed the counties as potential locations for an auxiliary touch-and-go training airstrip for Navy jet fighters. Ten sites were presented to the Navy by the Governor’s Office on Commonwealth Preparedness, which chose the locations based on an examination of data from the state’s geographic information system.

After accounting for factors such as population density and current and future land uses, Virginia officials settled on potential sites in Sussex, Southampton, Surry, Greensville and King and Queen counties, presenting the list to the Navy in July.

Governing boards have been holding regular and special meetings ever since, and — beginning with Southampton County Aug. 1 — lining up against their inclusion on the state’s list.

Surry County voted to oppose consideration of its three sites at an Aug. 2 meeting. Greensville passed a resolution Aug. 6 asking to be removed from the list. King and Queen County followed suit on Monday. Thursday’s vote in Sussex made local government disapproval of the governor’s list unanimous.

That vote, however, may not result in a change to the list of sites the Navy is considering.

&uot;All of this information will be part of what we send to the Navy,&uot; Robert P. Crouch Jr., the governor’s assistant for commonwealth preparedness, said Friday. &uot;Now it’s in the Navy’s hands.

Crouch and Deputy Assistant Steven Mondul said during a conference call that their understanding of the process differs from the understanding shared by many others that the Navy would not consider any site the state asked to be removed from the original list.

&uot;I think it’s probably accurate that people made an assumption there other than what was actually said,&uot; Crouch added. &uot;Certainly the expression of local concern by the Board of Supervisors is a very important factor, but it’s not automatically dispositive.&uot;

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson — who attended a Navy briefing July 30 at Oceana with three members of his Board of Supervisors and other board members from Sussex, Nottoway and the Town of Blackstone — said Friday he remembered the Navy’s pledge distinctly.

&uot;I did clearly hear the Navy say it was the governor who put (the sites) on the table, and it is the governor who can take them off,&uot; he recalled, noting that one weakness of the process has been that &uot;all of the parties have not been in the room together at one time,&uot; a fact which could lead to misunderstandings.

Resolutions in both Southampton and Greensville made direct reference to the governor asking the Navy to remove sites from the list of Virginia sites it is considering for the proposed auxiliary airfield.

In an Aug. 6 letter to the governor, Surry County Administrator Tyrone W. Franklin asked that his board’s opposition &uot;be conveyed early in the process of site selection.&uot; He also asked that the governor’s office &uot;take the necessary step in convincing the Navy to reconsider Surry County as a preferred location for an Outlying Landing Field.&uot;

Crouch said the governor will provide that and other information to the Navy in time for the Sept. 15 deadline the service set for developing information about the 10 sites in Virginia and others in North Carolina.

After Sept. 15, he said, &uot;We will be waiting for the Navy to narrow their list based on what we’ve given them.&uot;

For its part, the Navy says it is in the process of evaluating all of the sites proffered by Virginia and North Carolina to determine which would be feasible for a landing strip to support practice carrier landings for F/A-18 Super Hornets.

In September, said Ted Brown, media relations officer for the Navy’s U.S. Fleet Forces Command, the Navy and the governors of both Virginia and North Carolina should be able to come to an agreement on which sites are feasible and worthy of sending to the Secretary of the Navy for further consideration.

&uot;We would like to have those sites that are supported by the commonwealth and the Navy as potentially viable,&uot; he said.

Navy officials asked the governors of both states to develop the lists as potential back-ups to the preferred option of an OLF in Washington County, N.C. That location has proved to be extremely contentious, and some have questioned whether an airfield there could get congressional funding even if it clears the many legal hurdles that have been erected in its path.

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley asked the Navy to keep his state’s new proposed sites secret. Virginia officials point to the release of their list as evidence of their &uot;transparency&uot; throughout the process.

&uot;We have not been hiding anything,&uot; Crouch said, though he was not completely surprised by a certain lack of trust among citizens of the counties included on Virginia’s list.

&uot;I certainly appreciate the human response that is involved in that kind of reaction,&uot; he said.

Furthermore, though he said he had no prior expectations regarding the outcome of OLF discussions within the five counties involved in the process, Crouch said, &uot;I think it is certainly a natural response for these folks to be concerned about the noise issue and about the preservation of the character of their community.&uot;