New OLF static unearthed

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2008

FRANKLIN—A claim this week by the admiral in charge of the Navy’s hunt for an outlying landing field left local officials throughout the area scratching their heads.

During a segment Monday of WHRV radio’s hour-long weekday talk show, HearSay, Rear Admiral David Anderson said the communities selected as potential sites for the carrier landing practice facility lately have refused to engage with the Navy.

“We have met with all of the communities and some of the adjacent communities to discuss what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it and get them included in the process,” Anderson said in response to comments from Barry Steinberg, an attorney representing five Virginia counties that have joined to fight the Navy’s plans.

“Most recently they will only let their lawyer speak for them. They will not come to meetings, because they want their lawyer to be their voice.”

But representatives of the three Virginia counties that would most directly be affected by the proposed 2,000-acre landing strip and its 30,000-acre buffer zone disputed the claim this week.

Even the citizens’ group that has organized to fight the controversial airfield, Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, has not ruled out a direct meeting with Navy officials, according to President Tony Clark. But Clark added that it’s hard to see what effect such a meeting would have on the Navy’s desire to find a dark, rural area to place its training facility.

“Talk to ‘em, don’t talk to em. What difference is it going to make?” Clark asked. “It wasn’t (Anderson’s) decision to build a landing field in the first place.”

In fact, leaders from at least one Virginia community plan a meeting with Navy contractors later this month. Sussex County Administrator Mary E. Jones said Thursday that she will be meeting with Navy consultants to discuss the county’s comprehensive plan and land use issues as part of the service’s federally required environmental evaluation of the various sites that are under consideration as potential OLF hosts.

In Southampton County, administrator Michael Johnson said Navy officials had declined an offer earlier this year to meet publicly with the Board of Supervisors. He added that the county has no policy of avoiding direct contact with Navy officials.

Sussex and Southampton counties share two possible airfield sites. Surry County has the third potential Virginia location. In North Carolina, the Navy is also looking at sites in Camden and Currituck counties. The governing boards of all five communities have pronounced their opposition amid fears of excessive noise, environmental impacts and loss of tax revenues.

It was a comment about tax revenues by Steinberg, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., firm Kutak Rock, that resulted in Anderson’s debated claim.

“The communities are seeing a [future] loss of tax revenue” if an OLF eventually is built in Virginia,” Steinberg said. With the Navy needing 2,000 acres or so for the core site and use limits expected within the buffer zones, he added, land values—and, therefore, tax revenues—are expected to fall.

“Where are the communities in this process?” he asked. “If you want to do economic development, if you want to talk to the folks whose land you’re taking, go talk to them. Sit down with them.”

Anderson replied that the Navy hopes to help North Carolina and Virginia identify economic opportunities that could tie in with an OLF to help offset any potential damage to the tax base of the host community.

“Right now, I can’t get them to the table to even discuss those economic solutions.”

On Thursday, Navy spokesman Ted Brown declined to elaborate on the admiral’s comments.

“I think Admiral Anderson articulated the Navy’s position extremely well,” he said.

A reporter participating in the radio program explained to moderator Cathy Lewis that “one of the problems … is that the residents don’t necessarily want to see 600 to 800 jobs” come to their communities, whether they get an OLF or not.

“There’s a lot of folks who I think want to see their county stay the way it is now,” she explained.

The point echoed earlier comments by Steinberg. “There certainly is an emotional component” to the OLF opposition, he said. “The people are very tied to their land. It’s a very classic, close, rural-community tie to the land.”

Karla Martin, producer of the talk show, said Thursday that WHRV plans to do more segments on the controversial issue.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of responses from the community on this topic,” she said.