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Plymouth OLF tour opens eyes

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE, News Editor
PLYMOUTH -It was quiet, almost conspicuously so.
Dignitaries visiting one of two sites the Navy prefers for an outlying landing field in Eastern North Carolina couldn't hear the nearby tundra swans.
Situated in the backyard of Donald Stotesberry's land on Tuesday, they could see the swans flocking in blackland fields around the lawn, nestled serenely at the center of open acreage in the Pungo community.
The swans and the home may not remain if the OLF comes, annually bringing to this remote area an estimated 51,220 aircraft operations, thousands of them at night.
"They've already told me that my home and business are not compatible at this location, if it goes to Washington County," said Stotesberry, who operates a crop-dusting and aircraft-maintenance shop behind his house.
Yet, the large swans that feed in these fields may pose a danger to jet pilots.
The Navy has radar systems that can spot comparatively tiny objects, said Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth, a former Navy pilot.
But the swans are unpredictable, he said, and often take flight upon hearing a loud noise, posing a strike or intake hazard.
"Just because you can see an object the size of a golf ball does not mean you should fly an object through a hail storm," Roth said.
Conservationists, including representatives of the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, handed binoculars to the politicians they had invited, letting them see firsthand what the OLF could take away.
Volunteer Joe Albea, who adamantly opposes placement of an OLF in this farming community, explained to U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance Jr. of Warrenton that the federal government wants to control more than just a relatively small space around an 8,000-foot-long landing field.
The government also might eventually control 50,000 acres of this peaceful land, a move that could wipe 15 percent of the county's property tax revenue off the books for good.
It doesn't have to happen.
The Navy says so.
In an Oct. 30, 2000 letter, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic fleet at Norfolk acknowledged that "concerns over jet noise" in the densely populated Hampton Roads, Va., area prompted the Navy to consider an OLF to scale back operations at Oceana Naval Air Station and Fentress Field, the air station's accompanying OLF.
A draft environmental impact statement released in July 2002 lists several options to accommodate field-carrier landing practice, including a parallel runway at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
Far-removed from that bustling area, Ballance gazed at an open vista flecked in places by thousands of white swans. Ballance apparently was impressed.
"It confirms very positively that this project should not be put in this community, and that remains my position," he said.
For several communities opposing the OLF, lawmakers like Ballance are the last great hope. State officials quietly and, for the most part, privately admit that there is little they can do beyond supporting constituents opposing the OLF.
It's all up to the state's congressional delegation, they say.
With that in mind, a group of Beaufort County residents who fear they might be affected are heading to Washington, D.C., next week.
Gov. Mike Easley's office was represented here on Tuesday by Annette Hargett, director of the governor's eastern office.
Aside from repeating that Easley endorses the Navy's option for a parallel runway at Cherry Point, which would eliminate the need for an airstrip elsewhere, Hargett could add little.
Ballance opted for candor. He wants the Navy "brass" to take another look at the Washington County site.
Environmental concerns might be the solution to Washington County's problem, Ballance agreed, but it's not a sure thing.
"Sometimes, you have to give people a way out and I don't know what that will be yet," he said.
When told that some OLF opponents hope the congressional delegation can sway the military, Ballance said there isn't much he, a freshman congressman, can do. He doesn't serve on the armed services committee in the U.S. House.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., does serve on the Senate committee, Ballance pointed out. Dole supports the parallel runway.
(Ranking Armed Services Committee member and Virginia Sen. John Warner has lobbied for the deployment of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets to his state. The Navy broached the OLF in response to the hoped-for deployment. Some Super Hornet squadrons could be based at Oceana.)
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. of Farmville does serve on the House Armed Services Committee, Ballance added. Jones also supports the parallel runway.
Stotesberry wasn't at home during Tuesday's political visit. He was at a farm meeting.
Stotesberry has lived and worked on this land for nearly 23 years. His wife and two sons work with him.
To Stotesberry, the OLF issue isn't about patriotism. He wants military pilots to train.
But this is his home, and he doesn't want to leave.
"I'm right where I want to be," Stotesberry said.
Jonathan Clayborne may be reached by telephone at 940-4213 or via e-mail at jonathan@wdnweb.com.