OLF opposition reaches new heights

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2008

It’s hard to imagine that the debate over where to build an outlying airfield would wind up in the Oval Office or be connected to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but it has.

Well, sort of.

The Navy is considering sites on which to build a new training facility for jet pilots to practice take-off and landings, particularly to ready themselves for flying from aircraft carriers. The Navy has identified sites in Virginia and North Carolina — four of those sites are entirely or partially located in Southampton County — and residents near those proposed sites have risen en masse to resist the Navy’s plans.

Opponents in Washington County, N.C., however, may have outdone the other critics. Two Democratic congressmen were able to work into a defense spending bill a provision that, if passed, would have prevented the Navy from building its airfield there.

The newest version of the nearly $650 billion bill advanced to President’s Bush’s desk, but hit a snag. Also contained in the bill was a provision allowing residents of Iraq to sue the new government over actions taken by Saddam.

According to reports, Bush vetoed the bill primarily because of the Iraq stipulation, and the high-stakes trump Washington County residents had hoped would keep the Navy out of their back yard was rendered meaningless. For now.

A revised bill is being written that would also include similar language regarding an OLF in Washington County.

But the effort in Washington County highlights a phenomenon that this fight has generated.

Southampton was the first locality to go on the record opposing an airstrip here when the board of supervisors swiftly and unanimously voted to object to being the site of an OLF. Within a matter of weeks over the summer, the opposition in the region became unanimous. It also raised an uneasy question whether opposition groups were somehow unpatriotic for trying to block the Navy from providing its pilots with a

training site most everyone agrees is necessary and worthy.

But the Navy’s self-imposed deadline to announce a site came and went without a word from Naval officials.

In the meantime, a second source of opposition surfaced. And that source was a neighboring community’s effort to wage a fight against the Navy.

One vocal opposition leader reasoned the Navy would choose a site based on the path of least resistance, and that county would do all it could to avoid being seen as the least resistant path.

So in a sense, the fight became primarily against fights in other counties, to create more opposition than other groups. Fighting the Navy’s intentions became almost secondary.

In the end, of course, all the campaigning and letter-writing and sign-waving probably won’t carry as much weight as residents hope. After all, this decision will be made by — and supported by — officials who play comfortably on federal turf.

Still, we never saw this fight reaching the White House.