As the OLF battle wages, tactics are taking shape

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2008

It seems that at every turn, the battle lines in the fight to dissuade the United States Navy from building a practice airfield within earshot of our area don’t seem to get redrawn. Rather, they get reinforced.

Blunt force or determination — as opposed to deft maneuvering — seem to be the key strategic weapons in this fight.

Two weeks ago, opponents of the Navy’s desire to build a second landing field that would allow pilots to practice landings and takeoffs to simulate such maneuvers on aircraft carriers at night were told it’s a fight they will have to wage pretty much on their own.

“You’ll have to organize yourselves,” Surry Board of Supervisors Chairman M. Sherlock Holmes told the audience assembled for a special forum on the Navy’s auxiliary airfield. “It’s up to you now, from this point on, to organize locally.”

An aide to U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-03) also attended the meeting, making his boss’ stand known for the first time. The aide said the congressman’s “official position right now is that he will support the Surry County resolution (against the OLF) that was passed. As long as that is the county’s position, he will support it.”

None of the local governments want the OLF in their boundaries. Southampton County supervisors were the first to denounce the plan. Other governments have followed suit.

Southampton and Sussex counties share two other sites under consideration by the Navy. North Carolina has two on the list, as well. All five sites will be targets of an intensive two-year environmental review that began in earnest last week.

And the study is where the battle is expected to be waged.

Then on Thursday in Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, soon to be the commonwealth’s senior senator, told a contingent of local leaders that Virginia gets $43 billion a year in benefits from Department of Defense installations in the state. He didn’t say so specifically, but Webb made it clear that enormous boost to the state economy would be protected.

Yet, while top state officials have stated publicly that they won’t force an airfield on those who don’t want it, the Navy continues to outline its need for another practice field. The Navy has

also made it clear that it’s not looking at other locations than those already announced.

That fact must be disturbing at some level to those who so vehemently oppose construction of the field

that will bring, in their opinion, additional noise, the lowering of property values, threats to wildlife and possible destruction of historical landmarks. Thus far, for all the opposition mounted, the Navy seems ready to continue searching here.

Again, the reinforcements are being shipped en masse to the battle lines.

It’s almost as if the Navy knows it ultimately holds the cards needed to shoot the moon and win the hand.

Still, the opposition wages its fight.

At the same meeting two weeks ago, Barry Steinberg, the attorney hired to represent Southampton and Surry and the other counties under consideration for the OLF, was introduced. He told the audience that “In a democracy, the will of the people counts.”

Then he broached an avenue not heavily traveled: He suggested contacting politicians running for John Warner’s U.S. Senate seat.

“Whoever is running for Senate ought to have to take a position,” Steinberg said.

Airfield opponents also should raise every objection and concern they can think of during the environmental impact study period required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Steinberg said.

Delegate William K. Barlow, whose 64th District includes Surry and a portion of Southampton, is on record as saying, “Those of us who are local legislators are going to stand up for our constituents.”

He added the battle cry: “United we stand; divided we fall,” Barlow said. “This is like a battlefield, and we’ve got to have our horses coming from several directions.”

At last week’s anti-OLF meeting at Southampton High School, Barlow again sounded like a general aligning troops.

He said the Navy’s attempts to build in Washington County, N.C., were thwarted by opponents there.

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

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. “We don’t care which weapon wins.”

But both sides has weapons aimed at the other.