Navy officer: Communities will vie for OLF

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2008

NORFOLK—During its federally mandated environmental review, the U.S. Navy plans to press for economic and conservation partnerships that would make a proposed outlying landing field more attractive to the counties that are being asked to host it.

In the midst of its 30-month review of five potential OLF sites, the Navy will work with private industry, conservation groups and state and local governments to find a way to make hosting the proposed airfield a better deal economically, environmentally and politically for citizens in the affected areas.

Rear Adm. David Anderson called it &uot;the art of the possible&uot; during an interview in a Norfolk Naval Station annex office on Thursday.

The Navy, he said, will work with state and local governments, as well as private industry and organizations, to turn a project that is widely expected to be damaging to traditional ways of life into something that can actually benefit the community where it is finally located.

&uot;We want to engage with the community … to find a truly innovative solution that makes this a win-win situation,&uot; he said. &uot;What I am asking for is to sit down and have a dialogue, a meaningful dialogue with the individuals who are going to be affected.&uot;

Anderson said he has already had productive talks with some individual landowners and with at least one environmental group, especially concerning one of the two North Carolina sites under consideration.

The Nature Conservancy, he said, is interested in the possibility of reintroducing longleaf pines on land it owns adjacent to the proposed Sandbanks site. Trees would be a perfect crop to surround the landing field, he said, as they would help reduce the jet noise that escapes into the surrounding community and cut down on the ambient light that could interfere with pilot training.

In fact, agriculture would be just the kind of activity that the Navy would encourage around the airfield, Anderson said. It would bring in no development or lights to conflict with the OLF’s training mission, and it would allow existing landowners to continue to use their property as they have in the past.

Anderson pointed out that Oceana Naval Air Station encompasses farmland and said it would be easy to imagine farmers cultivating crops on land they continue to own &uot;right up to the edge of the concrete&uot; at the new facility.

&uot;The Secretary of the Navy has given us more latitude than we have ever had&uot; when it comes to negotiating a deal that will be beneficial to everyone, he said. For example, whereas early in the process the Navy had considered buying up to 50,000 acres to protect the OLF from encroachment, that number has steadily decreased. Today, Anderson said, &uot;I don’t care if I own any of this land.&uot;

The Navy’s change of heart regarding ownership of the land beneath and surrounding the OLF also should help dispel concerns about the effect of removing tens of thousands of acres from local tax rolls, he said.

&uot;We don’t want to take any more land out of the tax base than we have to,&uot; he said.

Combined with his pledge to help state and local governments identify potential economic development opportunities that would mesh with an airfield, the new Navy policies are designed to improve the potential economic impact of an OLF on its host community, he said.

&uot;I think I can make it where it has no effect or it has a positive effect,&uot; Anderson said. &uot;But in order to get to that (point), I’ve got to be able to sit down and talk&uot; to people in the affected communities.

The upcoming public scoping sessions will give the Navy a chance to make its case for the training airfield one-on-one with residents of the communities that are being considered.

Anderson asked that residents come to those meetings with an open mind.

He said he understands that the possibility of having an OLF next door — or in their back yard — is a very personal thing to area residents.

But, he said, the issue is &uot;really personal to us, too.&uot; Navy pilots need a place to train for carrier landings safely, and they need to be able to do so without many of the sacrifices that have been required because of the congestion now experienced at existing Navy area airfields.

The Navy’s need for a new OLF has come to have less to do with encroachment at its existing airfields than it does with the ability of those landing strips to accommodate all of the training that needs to take place, Anderson explained.

Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field is at or beyond its capacity 64 percent of the time when it is most needed, he said.

Even removing every home and business that encroaches on the Chesapeake airfield would not solve the training problems that Navy pilots face, he said.

&uot;It’s no longer just an encroachment issue,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s a capacity issue.&uot;

Without a new OLF, he said, the capacity issue would remain unsolved, and the usefulness of Oceana would be impacted.

&uot;The future viability of Oceana hinges on finding this OLF,&uot; Anderson said.