City Council halts pursuit of Navy project

Published 9:55 pm Monday, February 14, 2011


FRANKLIN-The City Council voted 5-2 Monday night to end discussions with the Navy about the use of Franklin Municipal Airport for pilot training.

The vote, on a motion by Ward 3 Councilman Greg McLemore, came a couple of hours after a pep talk from Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, who said the Navy hoped to have a positive impact on a community reeling from the loss of its anchor employer.

In a written statement late Tuesday afternoon, Harvey said the Navy would pursue other options.

“The Franklin City Council’s vote last night ends the Navy’s recent efforts to partner with the City of Franklin to use the Franklin Municipal Airport for Navy turbo-prop aircraft flight training,” Harvey said. “Although the Navy’s interest in the airfield deeds remains unaffected, we will begin to examine other airfield options and determine the best way ahead. There still remains a need to address capacity issues at Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake, Va., and the requirement to train our flight crews does not end with this vote. In the near future we will issue a Request for Proposals to solicit other available options.”

Mayor Jim Councill, who pleaded with his colleagues to await another demonstration of the proposed training maneuvers before making a final decision, opposed McLemore’s motion, as did Ward 5 Councilwoman Mary Hilliard. Ward 6 Councilman Don Blythe seconded the motion, which was also supported by Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson, Ward 1 Councilman Barry Cheatham and Ward 2 Councilman Benny Burgess.

Isle of Wight Supervisor Kenneth Bunch, who represents the Carrsville District, where the airport is located, said the City Council’s vote reflects how people feel about the airport’s proposed use by the Navy.

“The City Council heard what the citizens had to say,” Bunch said.

Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Wright, a Windsor resident, said the Franklin council did what it had to do.

“It’s Franklin property,” Wright said. “They can do what they want on their own property. I knew some had stronger opinions for it and some had stronger opinions against it.”

A vote on the Navy project was not on the council’s agenda. At the end of a public forum earlier in the evening, Councill said he did not expect the issue to come up.

But McLemore said he was ready to put the matter to rest and asked for permission to make his motion, which was eventually ruled in order by City Attorney Taylor Williams. Johnson questioned the appropriateness of bringing up the matter when it was not on the agenda.

“It’s over!” McLemore said after the meeting and his successful motion to “cease negotiations and discontinue pursuit” of the Navy project. The vote also prohibits the city from spending money evaluating the Navy’s proposal.

The council’s vote ends discussions that began last spring, when the city expressed to the Navy interest in hosting practice landings for pilots of turboprop aircraft that carry people and cargo to carriers at sea. Citizen opposition had grown in the wake of demonstrations of proposed flight patterns in October and December.

The Navy claims legal access to the airport under World War II-era deeds that transferred ownership of the airport from the military to the city. Harvey and other Navy representatives had left Monday’s meeting at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center before the council took its vote.

The Navy has proposed using the airport for some 20,000 touch-and-go practice landings a year. The practice would occur in three-hour periods, often after dark, for up to 200 days a year.

The Navy, in a “performance work statement” issued earlier this month, estimated that it would pay the city from $700,000 to $1 million annually to host the training. City Manager June Fleming said during Monday’s public forum that city officials had calculated that it would cost the city roughly $3 million to provide required services.

McLemore made the motion at the end of what was scheduled to be a brief council meeting covering an audit review and midyear budget report.

His words were greeted with loud applause by opponents who had remained after the earlier public forum, which drew about 200 citizens to hear presentations by city and Navy staff.

In lively debate following McLemore’s motion, Burgess likened the potential effect of the Navy’s plan with that of damage from Hurricane Isabel and the closure of International Paper’s Franklin paper mill.

Cheatham said: “None of us can see the economic benefits. I see no benefit to the city. This is not a partnership. It’s a one-sided love affair.”

Johnson said she was casting her vote with reservations.

“We still don’t have all the information,” she said.

Hilliard said she was “really torn on this issue. We should explore every option.”

Councill said that another demonstration of the practice landings, reflecting the Navy’s recent commitment to limit its operations to three planes at a time and not fly over the city, should be done before the council made a decision.

“I think people are afraid to see the truth,” he said. “We cannot afford to vote now.”

Councill looked directly at the audience, which was weighted heavily with opponents, and said, “You are not all the citizens,” adding that he’s gotten “dozens of calls” supporting the Navy’s plans.

After the meeting, opponent and Franklin resident Nancy Beale said she was “thrilled” with the council’s decision. She said the Navy plan “never showed anything positive.”

Dr. Linwood W. Johnson III, a Franklin resident, said, “I think (the council’s vote) is very positive. It shows council listens to the voice of the people.”

Linda and John Walter, who live close to the airport in Isle of Wight County, were likewise relieved.

“But I don’t think it’s over with,” she said. Her husband added, “Now council’s not wasting the Navy’s time.”