PR efforts ramped up in OLF fight

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 14, 2008

FRANKLIN—As Navy contractors sift through thousands of public comments and questions submitted during a public input period for the service’s proposed outlying landing field, the fight has moved into the court of public opinion.

A Navy contractor working on the federally mandated environmental impact study of five potential Virginia and North Carolina OLF sites has more than 2,900 submissions to sort, collate, count and then answer, according to Ted Brown, a Navy spokesman.

Navy and company officials also are beginning their environmental assessments of the three Virginia and two North Carolina sites, with a goal of releasing a draft environmental impact study early next summer.

But with the conclusion last week of the public comment period that will help define the bounds of that study, the real action in the OLF battle now revolves around winning the hearts and minds of the uncommitted.

Through personal contacts and even professional image-makers, OLF opponents are stepping up their campaign against the Navy’s plan for a new airfield that would be used to train pilots in the dangerous art of landing jets on aircraft carriers.

&uot;How do you deliver the truth in a way that attracts the attention of people who are otherwise not paying attention?&uot; mused Tony Clark, who leads the group Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field.

Clark and other Virginia OLF opponents have been keeping a keen eye on their neighbors to the south relative to the fight against the airfield. In Clark’s opinion, a strongly united North Carolina populace has taken some important steps to try to block the OLF from proposed sites in Camden and Gates counties.

Among those steps was the hiring of a public relations firm, Raleigh, N.C.-based French/West/Vaughan, to represent Camden and Currituck counties.

Camden County commissioners have set aside up to $300,000 in next year’s budget to pay for public relations, attorney’s fees and an independent environmental study, according to County Manager Randall Woodruff. Currituck County has pledged to pay half of the total cost for those services.

&uot;We felt it was imperative to use that type of resource to get our word out,&uot; Woodruff said of the county’s decision to hire a public relations firm. Camden commissioners have come out strongly against the OLF being located in their county, as have those from every other community listed as a potential host.

Woodruff said his board wants to make sure the Navy understands it is not &uot;just posturing to get more incentives,&uot; and they want to do what they can to increase the &uot;political leverage&uot; the 10,000 residents there can exert on the selection process.

To that end, the public relations company hired by Camden and Currituck sent a press release this week noting the growing body of official opposition to a North Carolina location for the airfield.

The Elizabeth City Council, the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners, the Albemarle Economic Development Commission and the Albemarle Rural Planning Organization all have joined the fight against the OLF by passing opposition resolutions and, in the case of Pasquotank, even pledging financial support for the effort.

Perhaps more important to residents of the Virginia counties that are under consideration for the facility, some opponents in North Carolina have begun to point back across the state line at the Virginia sites.

&uot;This airfield could destroy valuable North Carolina farmland, so we feel the Navy needs to seriously consider its sites in Virginia,&uot; Larry Johnson, head of the NO OLF Camden group, said in a press release from French/West/Vaughan.

Leaders from those communities—Southampton, Sussex and Surry counties—have engaged in their own public relations efforts within the last week.

Administrators from all three counties appeared on television Sunday making their case that the OLF is not the answer to problems at Oceana Naval Air Station that were identified in a 2005 report by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

&uot;We don’t disagree with the fact that military readiness is important,&uot; Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said on WVEC’s &uot;On the Record&uot; Sunday news program with Joel Rubin. &uot;Simply locating a military landing field is not the best solution to military readiness.&uot;

&uot;We need to focus on the big picture, not just looking at the OLF,&uot; agreed Surry County Administrator Tyrone Franklin. &uot;People have actually moved into our county from Virginia Beach and Chesapeake to get away from the same impacts that they are now being asked to accept into this community.&uot;

Under the format of Rubin’s program, the administrators and the Navy got equal time to present their positions. Speaking for the Navy were Rear Adm. Richard O’Hanlon and Mark Anthony, a retired Navy captain and current civilian director of Fleet Ashore Readiness.

O’Hanlon said it’s wrong to characterize OLF opponents as unpatriotic. &uot;They’re very proud Americans … [who] jealously guard their quality of life.&uot;

Though he did not directly answer a question about Oceana’s fate absent construction of a new OLF, O’Hanlon said, &uot;Oceana is a vital Naval Air Station that we’ve used for years, and the F-18 aircraft that are stationed there will be around for many, many years to come.&uot;

&uot;If we get this outlying field, and we have the ability to train our pilots,&uot; he said, &uot;Oceana will be a primary Naval Air Station for many years to come.&uot;