Navy talks move forward

Published 9:59 am Saturday, January 22, 2011

After sputtering for a few weeks — and nearly crashing — in the face of mixed signals from community leaders, the Navy’s plan to use Franklin Municipal Airport for turboprop pilot training appears to be back on track.

That’s not to say it’s a done deal.

A final vote by the Franklin City Council is at least six months away, and the Navy is more committed than ever to a transparent negotiation and deliberation phase in which every stakeholder has a voice.

In a series of conversations with Navy officials engaged in the Franklin project, this columnist has learned of several pivotal developments over the past couple of weeks:

* The much-discussed — and, in retrospect, overrated — “memorandum of understanding” between the city and Navy is off the table. What was intended to be a symbolic gesture of unity has become a lightning rod of controversy and speculation, so the Navy simply tossed it. Instead, the Navy and city will proceed directly to negotiation of a contract.

* The first draft of the contract, prepared by Navy lawyers, was reviewed by Adm. John C. Harvey Jr. this week and was to be in the hands of city officials as early as Friday. City leaders will have 30 days to review the contract and suggest changes. Those revisions will be incorporated in a second draft that will be made public and vetted thoroughly by all stakeholders over the course of several months. The City Council’s formal vote on the contract cannot occur until completion of a mandatory environmental assessment, which is under way but won’t be complete until at least mid-August.

* Isle of Wight County supervisors, who threw the Navy a curveball with an unexpected resolution of opposition to the project last fall, appear to be softening. Supervisors voted two weeks ago to have discussions with the Navy, and all indications point to the board’s eventual blessing of the project. When former Carrsville District Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw, who was influential in the resolution of opposition, left the board, Isle of Wight opponents of the Navy project lost their most important ally.

* The Navy, significantly, has promised to fly no more than three planes at a time in its Franklin training exercises. That guarantee is said to be prominent in the first draft of the contract and is seen by proponents as critical to tempering citizen opposition, which increased significantly after a December demonstration in which five Navy planes were flying. The more planes that are in the air at a time, the wider the patterns that they fly. Though the three-plane limit would be of no help for those along the North High Street corridor who are principally affected, other residential areas, including the heavily populated Clay Street corridor, that were affected by the December demonstration would benefit considerably from a three-plane limit.

* The Navy has received assurances that city officials remain open-minded and committed to exploring a mutually agreeable partnership. Absent those assurances in the last 10 days, the Navy might well have pulled the plug on its Franklin negotiations and re-engaged other communities and airfields in the region that had expressed an interest in partnering.

The Franklin airport offers no particular strategic benefits to the Navy. Rumors of heavy-handed political pressure from Richmond and Washington for Franklin to accept the Navy training are overblown. Navy leaders sincerely believed, based on early conversations with city leaders, that they were doing a favor for an economically beleaguered community.

Mayor Jim Councill, on the day last fall that the Navy announced it would negotiate with Franklin for use of the airport, likened the news to an early visit from Santa Claus. That the Navy had come to be perceived as Scrooge instead was perplexing for its leaders.

Though deeded access to the Franklin airport was a good reason to shelve a formal request-for-proposals, or RFP, process last fall and negotiate directly with Franklin, the Navy, to its credit, has never threatened to shove the project down Franklin’s throat. It is a two-partner tango that has brought the process this far.

Opponents, who will be discouraged by news that the project is moving forward, can find comfort in two facts:

* The process is on a slow, deliberative, transparent track.

* The final call on the Navy contract rests not with the mayor and top-level staff at City Hall but with a seven-person City Council whose members are accountable directly to voters.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is