OLF pursuit boils down to noise and money

Published 10:25 am Saturday, May 9, 2009

For more than a year now, I’ve been privileged to speak on behalf of many in our community who are opposed to the Navy’s proposed outlying landing field. And in that time, I’ve written in this very space on issues that are of greatest concern for those who would be most directly affected should the OLF come to Western Tidewater.

People are afraid of losing their homes, their livelihoods and their way of life. Farmers worry about which crops they can grow. Conservationists worry about potential environmental impacts. Citizens concerned about community finances lament the potential loss of tax revenue from declining real estate values. And the OLF will provide no positive financial impact whatsoever.

Then there’s the noise. The thought of F/A 18s screaming over your house in the middle of the night is not very appealing, especially since most of us choose to live in this area because of the peace and quiet.

So, quite frankly, no, we don’t want this in our back yard. These planes are big and loud, and the new jets ready to be produced are even bigger and louder.

But they are also quite profitable for the community that hosts the master jet base, which is precisely why we find ourselves in the predicament we’re in.

The OLF is about jet noise and, of course, money. So let’s start talking about how we got to this place — and not just about why we don’t want an OLF.

For decades, Virginia Beach and the Greater Hampton Roads region have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with the armed forces, particularly the U.S. Navy. NAS Oceana was built around 1940, when Princess Anne County was mostly a rural, agricultural community that looked very similar to the way Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties do today. NALF Fentress followed soon after in Chesapeake. Back then, our air forces consisted of planes that, by today’s standards, would be considered little more than crop dusters.

As the region grew and aviation technology evolved, the developing communities and our evolving military embarked on a collision course toward incompatibility. Virginia Beach became addicted to the revenue created by Oceana’s presence and to the tax income derived from the development that threatens Oceana’s very existence. All the while the Navy failed to stand up to the city and demand it enforce restrictions on encroachment.

In a nutshell, too many people have crowded an aging military facility, and naval aviators fly jets that are incompatible with human habitation.

A community that for decades has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with the Navy, one that has provided thousands of jobs and untold millions of dollars in economic benefit to the region, has grown tired of the noise associated with today’s jets.

So the Navy decided to build an outlying landing field. Someplace rural. Someplace quiet. The Navy would ship the noise out to the country, while Virginia Beach would keep the master jet base and all the jobs and revenue that it provides. Great deal if you live in Virginia Beach. Not such a great deal if you live here.

In October 2000, Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet Forces at the time, wrote that “it is precisely because of community concerns over jet noise that we are carefully exploring the establishment of an additional outlying field to accommodate Super Hornet training — should these aircraft come to our community — and reduce aircraft operations at our airfields at Oceana and Fentress.”

Of course, today Navy representatives state that the noise and encroachment concerns of a decade ago, while valid at the time, have no bearing on today’s pursuit of an OLF.

They now allege that concern over limited capacity at NALF Fentress and their restricted ability to adequately train Navy pilots with limited runway space and nighttime darkness hours are driving the pursuit of an additional practice location. And why is there a capacity problem at Fentress? Because of jet noise and, of course, money.

In 2005, the Hampton Roads Joint Land Use Study was conducted between the host communities and the Navy to address compatibility concerns. Virginia Beach wanted to continue deriving economic benefit from the Navy’s presence but did not want to inconvenience its residents, tourists or potential investors.

And the Navy was more than willing to comply. They agreed to eliminate late-night training and to change flight patterns and approach altitudes at Oceana, all in an effort to eliminate jet-noise concerns.

By discontinuing nighttime training operations at Oceana, the practice sessions would have to be transferred entirely to NALF Fentress in Chesapeake, creating a self-imposed supply and demand problem that the Navy claims it can only solve by the construction of an outlying landing field in our community.

If Fentress now has a capacity problem, it was in part created by the Navy and the Hampton Roads Joint Land Use Study commission — all in the name of eliminating jet noise in Virginia Beach.

Still don’t believe this is about jet noise and money? Ask the Navy about the lawsuit it recently settled with Virginia Beach residents for more than $30 million.

What was the basis of the lawsuit?

Excessive jet noise.

There are people, many of whom live in Virginia Beach, who refer to jet noise as the “sound of freedom.” Seems like the sound of money to me.