Search for anti-OLF ‘champion’ proves fruitless

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2008

WASHINGTON—Local representatives attending a Capitol Hill meeting to drum up support in their fight against a proposed Navy airfield left with little confidence that they will receive the backing of Virginia’s two senators.

Elected and appointed officials representing Southampton, Sussex, Surry and Greensville counties all headed to the nation’s capital Thursday to lobby for help against the outlying landing field from U.S. Sens. Jim Webb and John Warner and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-3rd).

“We’re in search of a champion to help us preserve the only way of life we have ever known,” Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson told Scott near the end of the hour-and-a-half meeting.

They did, in fact, get a strong commitment — to do what is necessary to keep Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia.

Attorney Barry Steinberg seemed disappointed, if not surprised, at the reaction of Washington officials to his suggestion that Oceana might just be too outdated to continue to be an effective East Coast master jet base. Steinberg has been hired by the four counties to help them during the Navy’s federally required environmental review of three sites proposed in Virginia and two in North Carolina.

“Protect Oceana — that’s the name of the game — as inadequate as it is,” he said as the group filed out of a conference room in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Steinberg had made the case to Webb, to Scott and to Warner’s aides that building another field carrier landing practice airfield for Navy fighter pilots would not solve Oceana’s encroachment issues, and he wondered whether problems at the Virginia Beach base would only get worse with the next generation of fighter aircraft.

He suggested that legislators encourage the Navy to consider the West Coast — where the master jet base is located hundreds of miles from the San Diego-based fleet — as a model for a potential solution to the jet noise/population growth problem.

“Those aircraft can be in a whole lot of places without jeopardizing what happens to the fleet,” he said.

Webb, who was on hand for about 15 minutes of the meeting, said he sympathized with those who worry Virginia counties will have to sacrifice land and quality of life for the OLF in exchange for little return in the way of economic benefit.

But, he said, “If we are going to keep the aircraft carriers in Virginia, we are going to have to have facilities where (the pilots) can train.”

“We need you to help us … find the right place … where this is compatible with keeping the Navy in Virginia,” Webb added.

“At least we brought the message,” Southampton County’s Johnson said after the meeting in a sentiment that was shared by both of the Virginia General Assembly delegates who helped organize it.

Airfield opponents may not have gotten the commitment to fight that they had sought from their representatives in Washington, Del. William Barlow, D-Smithfield, said, “But it’s still helpful to have direct contact.”

If nothing else, the broad geographic base of those who traveled to the capital made an impression on Washington insiders.

“It’s very unusual, in my experience,” said Webb Chief of Staff Paul Reagan.