Fighting City Hall

Published 9:20 am Friday, November 22, 2013

There’s an old saying that warns “You can’t fight City Hall,” and when folks in Western Tidewater learned six years ago the U.S. Navy had set its sights on several different potential rural locations for a new outlying landing field, many of those who stood to lose property and peace if the facility were built remembered that old saying and worried. If they had so little chance of winning a hypothetical battle against local government, how could they ever expect to come out on top in a real conflict with the U.S. Navy?

In light of the Navy’s announcement on Tuesday that it would abandon its pursuit of an OLF site in Southeast Virginia or Northeast North Carolina, the simple answer to the question seems to be this: The opponents did not give up, even in the face of what at times seemed overwhelming odds against them.

In the end, after years of environmental studies and largely failed public relations, the Navy reached the same conclusions that many opponents of the practice landing field for fighter jets had already reached: There’s just no pressing need for the facility in light of dwindling budgets and a shrinking East Coast carrier fleet, and the next generation of fighter jets might not even be stationed nearby, making the half-billion-dollar price tag of the proposed airfield utterly unsupportable.

But things looked much more certain to the Navy when it announced in 2008 that it was looking at five sites in Virginia and North Carolina as potential locations for an airfield where F/A-18 Hornet jets could practice aircraft carrier landings. The new landing field was necessary because Oceana’s existing offsite training airstrip, Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, was experiencing high demand and a spate of complaints from neighbors about jet noise, Navy spokesmen said at the time. The clear message from the Navy was that it needed a new outlying landing field or it would have to start thinking seriously about moving its carrier fleet and attached air wings to some other East Coast location.

The threat was a serious one to Hampton Roads, which counts Oceana Naval Air Station as one of its prime economic influences. For entirely different reasons, though, the threat was also a serious one to the quiet, rural communities that were at risk of suffering all the negative consequences of hundreds of take-offs and landings every week, while experiencing almost none of the economic benefits Oceana brings to its local hosts.

So farmers and other landowners whose property was at risk from the proposed 30,000-acre facility banded together with neighbors, county governments, state and federal officials and a few lawyers and public relations firms, and they went on their own offensive. They conducted environmental and archeological surveys that showed Western Tidewater and northeastern North Carolina to be anything but a wasteland just waiting for the Navy to rescue it. Instead, they proved it to have substantial intrinsic value that was worth preserving. In so doing, they also proved they would not just give in to the Navy’s plans. And, holding their ground for six long years, they finally proved that they were right all along.

Maybe you really can fight City Hall.