Southampton’s OLF ‘scoping’ session is biggest yet

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 3, 2008

COURTLAND—Halfway through a series of seven public information sessions, the U.S. Navy hosted its biggest crowd yet at Southampton High School Thursday.

Navy officials said Friday that 462 people showed up for the Courtland public scoping meeting, the fourth such meeting on the service’s two-week traveling schedule.

The turnout has been building with every meeting since the sessions began in Currituck on Monday. Navy spokesman Ted Brown said 242 people showed up for that meeting; 252 were on hand at the following session in Disputanta; and 320 attended a Sussex meeting Wednesday. Navy officials were set to hold their open-house style sessions in Gates County, N.C., on Friday, Camden County, N.C., on Monday and Surry County High School on Wednesday.

The meetings are intended as an opportunity for people to learn directly from the Navy about its plans for a new outlying landing field in Virginia and North Carolina. Federal law also requires the sessions as part of the Navy’s environmental impact study.

&uot;The bigger the turnout, the better,&uot; Brown said as he surveyed a lunchroom area where dozens of interested citizens milled about, chatting with each other and with the Navy representatives sent to answer questions about the OLF and its expected impacts on the community that ultimately hosts it.

Southampton and Sussex counties share two sites under Navy consideration for the airfield, which would be used for pilots to take part in field carrier landing practice. Surry and Prince George counties share a third Virginia site, and two more are located in North Carolina.

The scoping meetings are a major component of the environmental impact statements the Navy is required to prepare. Comments and questions received by the Navy during the meetings are all supposed to be addressed in the written environmental evaluation of sites that it expects to release next April.

During Thursday’s meeting, interested citizens were able to submit written questions in one of several comment boxes or by typing them on one of three laptops that were provided for that purpose.

A steady stream of people visited the school between 4 and 9 p.m. to learn more about the project and leave their comments for the Navy’s review. They were asked to register at one booth and were then directed inside to the school’s Commons area, where they were able to stop at any or all of seven other booths.

The informational booths featured naval aviators and sailors, as well as civilian consultants, who talked with visitors about topics including the Navy’s need for a new OLF, the conditions pilots face when landing on aircraft carriers, the noise impacts of pilot training, the potential economic impacts of the facility and its impact on landowners in the 30,000-acre area the Navy says will be most directly impacted.

A major complaint of members of Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, which had its own table set up outside of the school, was that they were unable to get specific information about such things as expected noise levels at specific locations or the likelihood that particular properties within the areas targeted for the OLF would need to be taken over by the Navy.

Brown said it was unfair at this point in the process to expect the Navy to have specific answers to such specific questions. The whole purpose of the environmental review, he said, is to identify any problems the potential sites might have.

Also, he said, the process has generated substantially more interest much earlier than it did when the last group of proposed sites went up for environmental review. Even the full-scale, formal public hearings for those North Carolina sites—which have since been withdrawn from consideration—did not attract as much interest as have the initial scoping meetings for the new crop of sites, he said.

Still, some of those attending Thursday’s meeting seemed disappointed in the answers they got to their questions.

At one booth, Daniel Jenkins Jr. pointed out the location of the home he built 10 years ago, which lies within the 30,000-acre noise buffer zone of the proposed Dory site.

When he asked a civilian Navy representative about the noise levels that could be expected there and how that noise would affect him in his home, he was told the studies had not yet been completed and was sent to the next booth for more information.

At that booth, Jenkins appeared a bit flustered as another representative described accident potential zones and the various noise zones that exist around an OLF.

In the past, the Navy has said it would try to move people out of the buffer zone where Jenkins would be located. He did not seem to get that information Thursday night.

&uot;If I’m within that barrier there, I’m not going to be able to sleep at night,&uot; he told a reporter.

Noise was also the main concern for Connie Burgess, whose Courtland home is almost in the center of a triangle formed by the proposed Dory, Mason and Sandbanks sites.

&uot;I really don’t want to hear jets flying over at all hours of the night,&uot; she said. &uot;I relish the peace and quiet.&uot;