People pack church to hear Navy OLF presentation

Published 7:46 am Friday, May 1, 2009

JARRATT— Bethlehem Baptist Church was packed with frustrated residents opposed to plans for an outlying landing field Tuesday night, and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Matt Baker was feeling the heat of their anger.

He described a scene from “Frankenstein,” where villagers wielding torches chase the monster into a windmill and set it on fire.

“There’s no need for that tonight,” said Baker, probably hoping a little humor might calm the crowd.

It didn’t work.

“This isn’t funny to us,” someone in the crown shouted.

“This is where we live,” said another.

The meeting, held Tuesday night near the Southampton County-Sussex line, drew nearly 200 people to the church. With the pews full, many chose to stand along the walls of the main sanctuary. Others watched on closed-circuit television in an adjoining building.

The subject at hand was the Mason site, one of five areas targeted by the Navy as possible locations for an OLF needed to support training requirements for pilots. In addition to the Mason site, two others are in Virginia.

The Dory site also straddles the Southampton-Sussex border, north of the Mason site. The Cabin Point site is near the confluence of Surry, Prince George and Sussex counties. The two other locations are in North Carolina, mostly affecting Gates County.

The Navy representatives hoped to keep the meeting focused on the reasons it needs an OLF and the general conditions and timetable under which the location decision will be made. Many of those in attendance, however, wanted to know why so little specific information is getting to those who may be affected most.

Chris Bradshaw lives in Grizzard, just a few miles from the Mason site. He did not receive a postcard with OLF information from the Navy’s consultants, but his father, who lives near Franklin, did get a card.

Asked to raise their hands if they received a postcard, about 10 people from the audience responded. Baker and his staff pledged to improve that situation.

Bruce Phillips, who farms near Sebrell, said better maps are needed. Those he has seen left him unclear about the true footprint of the project, which the Navy describes as about 24,000 acres, with additional restrictions on another 6,000-to-8,000 acres.

“The maps need to show the exact footprint and show the roads,” he said. “That would give us a better idea of how this will impact us.”

Lynda Updike of Statesville asked if the Navy’s pilots are being trained adequately now. Baker answered yes, explaining that pilots often get the specific training the OLF would provide by travelling to Jacksonville, Fla.

The expense of doing so is great, he said, plus there is considerable wear and tear in the airplanes.

Afterward, Updike summed up the concerns many attendees expressed during the meeting.

“I’m a wife and mother first,” she said, “but after that I’m a farmer. I would hate to see the impact of this project on our rural lifestyle and heritage.”

Baker explained that a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) would be released late this summer with public hearings and a 60-day public comment period to follow.

“That is the time for foot-stomping,” he said. “Everybody in here will have the opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Following the 60-day comment period, Baker said, the DEIS for each of the sites will be finalized and presented to the secretary of the Navy, who will make the final decision.

He said the Mason site could employ around 60 non-Navy personnel, doing jobs such as refueling aircraft, providing security, cleaning buildings and cutting grass. He said there are no guarantees these jobs would go to local people.

“The larger goal for the Navy is to develop economic opportunities that provide benefits beyond the OLF itself,” said Baker. “Maybe the community needs something like a water-treatment facility. While there’s an 80 percent chance the OLF will go somewhere else, there’s a 20 percent chance it will go here.”

Baker said residents at all of the proposed sites should decide what they want from the Navy if their community is impacted, and make that point known to their county representatives.

Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson attended the meeting. There was no new information in the presentation, he said, stressing that it is important for local residents “to fully avail themselves to the rights and privileges that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) affords them.

“Folks want straight answers to their questions,” he said. “If the Navy does its job, many of those questions should be answered in the DEIS that it will release later this summer.”

Interested citizens should remain vigilant and fully engaged in this process, he said.

“As soon as the DEIS is available, they will have a relatively brief window of opportunity to digest it and respond with questions and comments. The Navy will schedule a public hearing soon after release of the DEIS. That’s when interested citizens should pack the house and flood the Navy with comments.

“They’ll also have up to 60 days to send written comments to the Navy. They need to take full advantage of that opportunity,” Johnson stressed. “They also need to regularly communicate their concerns with Virginia’s congressional delegation and gubernatorial candidates.”

Like many attendees, Johnson thought the OLF representatives could have given more time to the meeting, which lasted about an hour.

“The Navy certainly didn’t help itself last night. They’ve maintained they want dialog with the community,” he said. “Last night was a golden opportunity and they pulled the plug after an hour. Democracy doesn’t operate on a time clock.”