Navy cancels OLF study

Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Citizens of Southampton, Sussex, Surry and Greensville counties filed past “NO OLF” signs while entering Southampton High School six years ago. The Navy has cancelled its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for an OLF in the area Tuesday. -- FIILE PHOTO

Citizens of Southampton, Sussex, Surry and Greensville counties filed past “NO OLF” signs while entering Southampton High School six years ago. The Navy has cancelled its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for an OLF in the area Tuesday. — FIILE PHOTO

COURTLAND—It’s over.

After several years with a cloud of uncertainty in regard to a potential Navy Outlying Landing Field hanging over their heads, residents of Dory, Mason and Cabin Point in Western Tidewater can sleep a little easier, said Mike Johnson, Southampton County administrator.

“It was gratifying that the Navy has seen fit to cancel this,” he said. “Residents who have been waiting about what decisions to make with their homes for a little more than six years can breathe a collective sigh of relief.”

The Navy has cancelled the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the OLF to be located in either Northeastern North Carolina or Southeastern Virginia. More specifically, the Navy has been considering three sites for the OLF in Virginia since 2008, one entirely in Southampton County, one on the border of Southampton and Sussex counties and one within Surry County.

The environmental study had previously been suspended in January of 2011, pending the determination of a home base for the Joint Strike Fighter squadrons, or F-35 aircraft. The decision on where to base the squadrons has been delayed until at least 2017, Navy officials said in a news release.

Barry Steinberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney, said the Navy could consider the issue of placing an OLF in Western Tidewater after 2017 when it makes a decision regarding the F-35, although he doesn’t expect that.

“The fat lady has sung,” he said.

Steinberg, who was hired by Southampton, Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Greensville counties to fight the OLF, said he was not too surprised about the announcement.

“In my judgment, the passage of time brought us to where we are today,” he said. “It was clear they were not prepared to make a decision on stationing the F-35.

“A lot of the data they had collected for the study was stale. Ecosystems are not static. I think it was the right decision, it is only tragic that it was not made three years ago.”

Steinberg said there are several dimensions to this, including political and budgetary issues, the underlying need of the base, and also the long-term viability of Naval Air Station Oceana.

Regarding political pressure, the five-county local coalition put up a fight that the Navy wasn’t expecting, said Steinberg, which set out to showcase that Virginia Beach would get all of the benefits of the naval base, and Western Tidewater would simply get the noise, while also losing 20,000 to 30,000 taxable acres.

There are also environmental and wildlife factors, in particular the bald eagle, which he said were significant, Steinberg said.

The F-35 itself is another reason, as it is over budget and delayed in production, he said. The Navy is also considering moving aircraft carriers to the pacific. He said if one moves out of the Hampton Roads area, the issue is solved as far as needing an OLF, which could cost up to $500,000,000.

“There is a drumbeat to reduce the defense department budget, and there are issues with the F-35 on top of that,” Steinberg said. “There’s too much uncertainty, and too much opposition for the Navy to continue.”

He said there was at least one potential benefit in that the OLF would have created 65 jobs, including security and lawnmowers. However, most of these jobs would not employ local people. People would likely commute for the jobs, Steinberg added.

“People do not move their family for a job in Dory,” he said.

Steinberg, a retired army colonel, said there was never a question about the need for pilot proficiency.

“The skill and courage required of an aircraft carrier pilot is as highly valued as any single other military skill set that you can find,” he said. “You need to practice landing and taking off in a carrier. No one would argue that.”

If it was only practicing landing and taking off, Steinberg said there would not have been a fight.

“But when you take 30,000 acres of land that is taxable, prime for agriculture, and put it together with issues of roads, streams, forests and wildlife; and then you take a relatively quiet neighborhood that doesn’t have much nighttime noise at all, and you introduce supersonic jets that go in a circle over and over and make noise, people will fight it.”

Congressman Randy Forbes (VA-4) in a statement Tuesday said, “Last year we worked with localities and the Navy to resolve the Navy’s need to find a location for its C-2 and E-2 training. While the Navy has chosen to cancel its need for a second OLF at this time, the Wallops outcome is a model for the type of cooperation we should look to in the future to help balance the very real concerns of our localities with Navy training needs.”

Local citizens early on found an ally in Forbes, a staunch supporter of the military and chairman of the powerful Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. Forbes engaged local citizens on the issue as early as 2008, and even introduced legislation in 2009 that would have helped aid the community in their fight.

Lynda Updike, who was a part of the No OLF citizens group, said what concerned her the most was the farmland.

“It would have destroyed some of the best farmland in Southampton County, and also take 30,000 acres out of our tax base,” she said. “When they first started talking about the OLF, they were saying it would have been a benefit. But, the planes would just touch and go. They would hire a few entry-level people for the site, but that’s nothing when you consider putting all of those farmers off of their land.

“I remember at one of the meetings with the Navy, Jack Pond, who has since died, told them, ‘Please don’t take my farm.’ He had tears rolling down his face. I was concerned about what taking that land would do to the county.”

Updike said she attended a lot of meetings, including the ones in North Carolina, wrote several politicians and made a lot of phone calls over this issue, so to say she was relieved was an understatement.

“My answering machine doesn’t say have a good day like they usually do, it says make it a good day,” she said. “This announcement made it a great day.”