Same battle, new lines of attack

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 14, 2008

In the battle against the Navy’s attempt to build an outlying landing field in their respective communities, opponents have brandished many weapons.

From that first massing of troops nearly a year ago at Southampton High School to the current state of readiness, opponents have gathered whatever tools they could get their hands on to thwart the Navy’s plan to place a practice landing field to train fighter pilots in the dangerous art of landing jets on aircraft carriers.

At first the method of choice included signs and banners and fliers.

Then letters were written — letters to the editors of local newspapers, to state legislators, to lawmakers in Washington.

Once the Navy narrowed its choices for an airstrip to five localities — Southampton, Sussex and Surry counties in Virginia, and Camden and Gates counties in North Carolina — the choice of weapons has become more specific to the fight at hand.

A high-powered lawyer well-versed in such war tactics was retained to show local elected officials in Virginia how to battle the mighty Navy.

Over the border in North Carolina, the weapon of choice is an American standard: advertising.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based public relations firm of French/West/Vaughan has been hired 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.

The public relations company hired by Camden and Currituck circulated a press release this week noting the growing body of official opposition to a North Carolina location for the airfield.

“This airfield could destroy valuable North Carolina farmland, so we feel the Navy needs to seriously consider its sites in Virginia,” Larry Johnson, head of the NO OLF Camden group, said in the press release that is sure to be a source of fighting words.

Still, one big unknown through all of this is how closely the Navy brass was listening to the locals, those who have loudly protested against placing a site in their neighborhoods.

Tony Clark, who leads the group Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, said: “How do you deliver the truth in a way that attracts the attention of people who are otherwise not paying attention?”

So once again this battle — at least in the short term — pits Virginia against North Carolina, and forces on each side of the fight believes they can win by being the louder, the more persuasive, the more persistent of the two.