Supervisors reiterate opposition to Navy airstrip

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 26, 2007

COURTLAND—Any questions about Southampton County’s true position on the matter of a new Outlying Landing Field should have been laid to rest Monday night.

Without dissent, the Board of Supervisors directed County Administrator Michael Johnson to send a letter to the governor and the Navy reiterating their opposition to placing the airstrip in Southampton County.

That letter will be a response to one the county received from the governor’s office last week asking for patience with the Navy’s process.

&uot;We need to let them know we’re not for sale,&uot; commented Capron District Supervisor Moses Wyche.

A recent meeting between representatives of the Navy, the governor’s office and Southampton County had included a reference to possible financial incentives for a county that chose to host the airstrip, according to Johnson.

The reference left county officials wondering whether the governor and the Navy were clear about the rigidity of Southampton’s opposition to being considered as a potential airfield host.

With Monday’s vote, supervisors sought to clarify things for those who might still be wondering.

&uot;We do not want it, and we need to let them know,&uot; Chairman Dallas O. Jones said.

&uot;Anyplace but here,&uot; added Berlin-Ivor District Supervisor Ronald M. West.

County officials had hoped the four Southampton sites already would have been removed from a Navy list that included 10 Virginia and six North Carolina locations submitted by the respective governors in July.

The Navy has been evaluating those proposed sites and one from Fort Pickett for suitability for an airfield that would be used to train pilots of F/A-18 Super Hornets to land on aircraft carriers.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and N.C. Gov. Mike Easley were asked this summer to provide the Navy with a list of alternative locations for the OLF, following a protracted battle between the Navy and environmentalists over the service’s first choice in Washington County, N.C.

When it became clear that the site, which is near a wildlife refuge, faced potentially insurmountable hurdles, the Navy asked the governors to propose other possible locations for the facility, which is intended to reduce peak training loads on existing airstrips at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake.

Virginia’s proposed sites were announced in July, and Southampton lead the charge of communities opposing their inclusion on the list, responding to promises from representatives of both the Navy and the governor’s office that unwilling counties would not be forced to host an OLF.

In fact, Navy spokesmen said that any sites removed from the list by the governor ahead of the Navy’s Sept. 15 deadline would no longer be considered. Kaine, however, declined to remove any of the sites he had proposed, opting instead to provide the Navy a broad range of information — including opposition letters, emails and messages — about all of the sites.

&uot;You may be sure that we have conveyed to the Navy the resolutions and other expressions of concerns we have received regarding the OLF,&uot; Robert P. Crouch Jr., assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness, said in last week’s letter to Southampton.

&uot;We respectfully ask that all interested parties now standby to see what the Navy’s next steps and level of interest will be,&uot; he wrote. &uot;You may be assured that the Governor remains personally interested in your concerns regarding the OLF issue.&uot;

In a related development, a group of more than 500 people gathered in Gates County Monday to hear that county’s Board of Commissioners publicly oppose their county’s inclusion on the list of alternatives presented by Gov. Easley in July.

Unlike Virginia, which notified the affected communities and made its list public in July, North Carolina chose to keep its list of six alternative OLF sites under wraps until last week, when the Navy announced that it would need two months longer to study its alternatives before announcing a short list.

Gates County is the first of the affected counties to make an official pronouncement regarding its inclusion on that list. Two of Easley’s six new sites include land in Gates County.

The sites chosen for the short list — expected to include up to five potential OLF locations — will be subject to an extensive, two-year environmental review that will include multiple public hearings and public comment periods.