Lawyer compares OLF fight to David vs. Goliath

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 8, 2008

COURTLAND—Keeping a proposed outlying landing field out of Southampton, Sussex or Surry counties will require citizens and elected officials to come together as they rarely have in the past, opponents were told Wednesday night.

But if they begin to feel the task is impossible, they should remember the story of David and Goliath and take heart from the modern version that played out in January, when the Navy finally gave up its quest for an airfield in Washington County, N.C.

&uot;It’s David, 1 Goliath, 0 in that county,&uot; Barry Steinberg told a group of more than 500 that gathered at Southampton High School under the leadership of Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, a citizens’ group that has organized to fight on behalf of residents of the three Virginia counties that are among five locations the Navy has said are potential sites for its airstrip.

Steinberg is a Washington, D.C., attorney who has been hired to represent the three county governments, along with that of Greensville County during the Navy’s federally required environmental review of the sites.

He was one of several featured speakers during a two-hour meeting designed to get citizens involved in the two-year process.

Part informational session, part fund-raiser and part pep rally, the gathering featured an area where people could look at detailed maps of the proposed Virginia and North Carolina sites. Contact-list handouts were available to encourage citizens to begin lobbying their legislators, the governor, the Navy and just about anybody else who might have something to do with the choice of airfield locations.

Volunteers at another set of tables sold &uot;NO OLF&uot; signs, bumper stickers, hats and T-shirts, while others gave away stickers that could be worn during the meeting. Nearly everyone in the audience wore one of those stickers.

Steinberg told audience members that their help would be vital during the coming period of environmental review.

&uot;I need your input,&uot; he said. &uot;You know more about your community, your lifestyle and the things that make a difference to you than I will know if I moved here and lived here for the next year.&uot;

He encouraged residents to &uot;ask every question (they) can think of&uot; during &uot;public scoping meetings&uot; with the Navy this month and next. Those questions all will have to be addressed as part of the environmental impact study, he said.

State legislators and aides to the two congressmen who represent the targeted counties also were on hand to assure those attending that they will fight alongside their constituents.

&uot;I just want to recommit to you that I am elected to serve at the will of the constituents in the 18th Senatorial District, and my position will be the same as yours,&uot; said state Sen. Louis Lucas (D-18th). &uot;If you oppose the OLF, we’re going to be right there with you, working to help the Navy come up with another alternative.&uot;

Lucas was joined onstage by Del. William Barlow (D-64th) and Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-75th), both of whom joined her in speaking forcefully against putting an OLF in their districts.

State Sen. Frederick Quayle (R-13th) was hurt in a fall a few days ago and was unable to attend, but sent a statement that was read by Tony Clark, chairman of the VAOLF group.

Quayle noted in his statement that he had attended an August meeting at the high school after it was announced that Gov. Timothy Kaine had submitted 10 Virginia sites to the Navy as possible locations for the practice landing strip.

According to the statement that was read Wednesday, Quayle recalled that at that meeting a governor’s assistant had promised that no Virginia locality would be forced to host an OLF.

&uot;I expect and will demand that the governor stand by that promise,&uot; he said in his statement.

Opponents also received commitments of support from aides for U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes (R-4th) and Bobby Scott (D-3rd). Both congressmen were in Washington and unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but the statements their aides read included promises to stand arm-in-arm with their constituents.

&uot;I do not believe an OLF should be forced on a locality in my district that does not want it, and as ranking member of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, I do not plan to support funding for an OLF if, at the end of the Navy’s process Southampton and Sussex determine that they do not want it,&uot; said Forbes’ military liaison, Jason Gray, reading from his boss’ prepared statement.

The only legislators who have yet to weigh in on the issue are Virginia’s senators, John Warner and Jim Webb. Warner has announced he will retire at the end of this term, which means he would be out of office by the time the Navy chooses a favored site. Webb has remained silent on the issue, but a group of local government officials, organized by Tyler, will visit him in Washington next week to press its case against the airfield.

Talking to the senator will be part of a necessary effort to build a wide coalition of supporters, Tyler said.

&uot;We know as elected officials that the more people we can get together behind us, the more power and influence we have,&uot; she said. &uot;You say, ‘Well, why go to Washington to see Sen. Webb?’ Well, he didn’t come our way, so we’re going to see him.&uot;

Speakers on Wednesday pointed out that both Virginia senators could be valuable allies for OLF opponents, by virtue of the fact that each has served as secretary of the Navy.

But Barlow warned that pushing back against the Navy’s plans would be harder for the five communities on its new list of potential OLF locations than it was for Washington County, N.C., where the Navy’s preferred landing site was adjacent to a wildlife preserve that attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds.

&uot;This is going to be a tougher battle than they had,&uot; he said. &uot;The Navy is going to be smarter this time.&uot;

Barlow said citizens and elected officials would need to take advantage of every weapon in their arsenal — political support, grassroots efforts and legal wrangling — to fight the Navy’s plans. &uot;We don’t care which weapon wins.&uot;

The most important thing people from the area can do, said VAOLF’s Clark, is to get involved.

Looking out at the empty seats in the auditorium that he had hoped to see filled, Clark said, &uot;If we don’t as a community get 100 percent involved, we might have problems. The Navy … is going to go with the path of least resistance.&uot;