OLF opponents state their case

Published 7:50 am Saturday, February 28, 2009

FRANKLIN—Opponents of the Navy’s plans to construct an Outlying Landing Field came to The Tidewater News offices on Wednesday to discuss the OLF issue.

“We’re in a watch carefully, collect your own data mode,” said Barry Steinberg, an attorney with the Washington-based law firm Kutak Rock LLP who represents five Virginia counties that are against the OLF. He said the Navy was preparing its environmental impact statement and should have draft results presented by the end of the summer.

Eminent domain

Steinberg said one stark difference between the Army and the Navy became apparent Tuesday during a meeting of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness in Washington. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-4th), a vocal opponent of the OLF, is the ranking minority member of that subcommittee.

Assistant Secretary of the Army Keith Eastin and Assistant Secretary of the Navy B.J. Penn were both at the hearing — Eastin to talk about the proposed expansion of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado and Penn to discuss the OLF to support Oceana Naval Air Station.

“The Army wants to increase the land on which it can perform armor vehicle training exercises (at Pinon Canyon),” Steinberg said. “The community has essentially said, ‘Over my dead body. You’re not getting my land.’ The congressman from the area asked Eastin if the Army would use the powers of eminent domain or condemnation under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution to acquire the land if they could not get it voluntarily. Eastin’s answer was ‘No, we will not do that.’”

The same question was posed to Penn with respect to the OLF.

“His answer was that the Navy will not forego its option to condemn land, to take land involuntarily,” Steinberg said.

“It’s a very interesting juxtoposition between those two people who occupy equivalent positions for the Army and the Navy. The Army is essentially saying ‘We don’t take land by condemnation for what we need,’ and the Navy, in essence, is saying ‘We do.’”

Not for sale

Steinberg was critical of the strategy of Rear Admiral David Anderson, the Navy’s point man for the OLF project, who was interviewed by The Tidewater News on Jan. 26.

“He said he thought that the key to success was providing an economic solution to the community that would be affected,” Steinberg said. “And he’s been searching for it.”

Some examples of that economic solution, Steinberg reasoned, might include a new university, an interstate highway, a dual-use air facility or a power plant.

“Whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to require money,” Steinberg said. “There’s a question of where the appropriation will come from. Does someone have a notion that the Secretary of Defense is going to go to Congress and ask for an appropriation — to build a university, for example — somewhere in Southside Virginia? I think it’s pretty unlikely.”

The appropriation would more than likely come from the state. But that raises two issues, Steinberg said.

“We’re in pretty austere times,” he said. “It’s not going to get better near term. I don’t purport to (know when we will) see a turnaround, because the truth is nobody knows. But it’s not going to be quick. The notion that (Virginia) would spend literally milions of dollars of state taxpayers’ funds in order to produce 62 jobs worth roughly $4 million in Southside Virginia is not an economically viable solution to the problem.”

But the “heart and soul of the issue,” according to Steinberg, “is that it wouldn’t make any difference.”

“The community is quite adamant. There is no economic solution, because we’re not for sale. We don’t want the OLF at any cost. There’s no sense in coming to these communities with a so-called economic solution because what they have said is money won’t fix it, jobs won’t fix it. (The solution) still doesn’t address the other unquantifiable losses that the communities believe they will suffer,” Steinberg said.

“Maybe under different circumstances, at another time, in another piece of geography, the economic solution might work. I’ve been working for these five communities for a little over a year, and I see absolutely no evidence that an economic solution will work.”

Chip in the armor

Even if the Navy does identify one or two preferred sites for the OLF by the end of the summer, Surry County Administrator Tyrone Franklin said elected officials from all five sites would still stand united in opposition to the airfield.

“We started out as coalition, we’ll finish as one,” Franklin said. He suggested that the Navy could possibly resort to a “divide and conquer” strategy by selecting a site and then offering economic incentives.

The result, Franklin said, would be a “kind of a chip in the armor. (But) I think our board members, who have been elected by their constituents, bear a lot of responsibility with the way they will decide on those issues. From that standpoint, I think it’s very unlikely that they would waver in their position.”

Tony Clark, chairman of the group Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, added, “I think it would be a foolish notion to assume that there is not an elected official that would not have a conversation with the Navy about possible economic incentives. I would question their judgment if they wouldn’t have a conversation. But I think … a pretty substantial number is pretty darn opposed, and it would probably not be politically expedient for (an official) at this point to change positions against the wishes of their constituents.”

‘It was awful’

One of the major arguments opponents have against the OLF is the introduction of jet noise to the serene countryside.

Helen Harrell, of Mason, Va., said Anderson and the Navy took her and another woman out to Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Virginia Beach to hear the jet noise there. Fentress serves as the OLF for Oceana.

“(Anderson) did take us two miles away and stopped the van,” Harrell said. “A plane went over. Whew! Terrible. We got in, went a mile away. It was worse. Then we went to the field. We had earplugs, but you wouldn’t even know you had earplugs. It was awful. Your chest vibrated … I mean, really vibrated.”

Changes at the top

When asked if the change in administration at the White House had any impact on the OLF issue, Steinberg said no.

“But I don’t take that as a negative,” Steinberg said. “It just hasn’t come to fruition. It hasn’t come into focus yet at their level. I think it’s fair to assure you that at the right time it will, because we’ll be sure it does.”