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Anti-OLF group lobbies in D.C.

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE, News Editor
Part one of a three-part series.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Residents lobbying to keep an outlying landing field and its effects away from Beaufort County took their message to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Homeowners, elected officials and real estate agents boarded a bus on Tuesday night in hopes of meeting key members of North Carolina's congressional delegation.
The group wanted to convince the lawmakers that the Navy's proposals to build an OLF would bring noise, air and water pollution and little or no economic benefit to Beaufort County, according to county Commissioner Hood Richardson.
"It's not really a bad idea, it's where they want to put the OLF," Richardson said.
About 40 people took the trip, related Mary Ellen Tyrrell, legislative chairwoman for the Beaufort County-based Citizens Opposing Outlying Landing Fields, or COOLS.
COOLS was joined by representatives of the Boy Scouts of America, which has a camp in a potential OLF noise cone, the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, the Beaufort County Committee of 100 and the Sierra Club, among others.
Washington Councilwoman Judy Meier Jennette and Washington Park Mayor Tom Richter, representing the Beaufort County Mayors Association, also made the trip.
"It's really snowballed into being something that's for Beaufort County," Tyrrell said.
The group scheduled meetings with Sens. John Edwards and Elizabeth Dole and Reps. Walter B. Jones Jr. and Frank Ballance Jr.
The trip was financed in part by Beaufort County. COOLS requested and received $3,930 from the commissioners to rent a 45-passenger bus and reserve a maximum of 23 rooms in a hotel outside the capital.
The commissioners unanimously voted to approve the funding request during a meeting on Feb. 11, choosing to take the money from a $25,000 pot set aside for OLF opposition.
At issue, at odds
A draft environmental impact statement released last summer by the Navy shows that sites in Washington County and Craven County are preferred alternatives for an OLF. The Navy could decide on placement this summer. Both sites border Beaufort County.
The Navy wants to control up to 50,000 acres of land around an 8,000-foot OLF, where pilots would practice touch-and-go landings. The OLF might bring 50 jobs to the area, and one-time construction costs could exceed $36 million, the Navy says.
Some Beaufort County officials – including the Board of Commissioners and the Washington City Council – fear an OLF would reduce the value of adjacent land and make upmarket subdivisions south of the Pamlico River less attractive to relocating retirees who have helped shore up a local economy hit hard by layoffs and plant closings.
The Navy proposed the OLF as one alternative to maintain training in advance of the possible deployment of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets to air bases in the mid-Atlantic. Among the leading choices for bases are Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Craven County. The relocation of up to four squadrons – 52 jets – to Cherry Point could pump tens of millions of dollars into the economy of Craven County.
"I know good and well it would be a benefit to have them up here in Craven County," said Johnnie Sampson Jr., chairman of the Craven County Board of Commissioners, contacted by telephone on Thursday.
"Definitely, jobs would be one of the main reasons," Sampson said. "The bases have spent a lot of money up here over the years."
According to Richter, the Beaufort County group recognizes the economic importance of the squadrons and is aware of the Navy's need to train, but, Richter said, the DEIS released last summer by the Navy shows that a parallel runway at Cherry Point would fulfill the military's training requirements.
"There really are better places to do it," Richter said.
Reports show that Craven County residents overwhelmingly endorsed having an OLF in their county last year during a public hearing held by the Navy. Residents in Washington and Beaufort counties overwhelmingly rejected the proposals during public hearings held in those counties.
Not alone
The group from Beaufort County wasn't alone this week in its lobbying efforts.
Members of a six-county steering committee pushing to keep the OLF out of the Albemarle Sound region attempted to make the trek to D.C. on Wednesday morning, said Billy Corey, a Washington County commissioner who co-chairs the committee with Commissioner Ben Hobbs of Perquimans County. The committee had scheduled meetings with Edwards, Dole, Jones and Ballance, Corey said.
The committee members made it as far as Richmond, Va., but had to turn back due to a snowstorm that also made travel difficult for the group from Beaufort County.
Speaking Tuesday night of the committee's plans, Tyrrell said, "Must be a little nervous about the fact that we're going up there."
The committee – whose counties forked over $25,000 apiece to hire a lobbying firm – last year declined to let Beaufort County join because of the county's inflexibility on the parallel runway option.
Restating the committee's position on Thursday night, Corey said his committee sees the parallel runway as "a win-win situation," but added that, if the parallel runway proves not to be feasible, the committee prefers that the OLF go where the assets – the jets – go.
"We wouldn't change to say it's only that (the parallel runway) or nothing, because I personally feel like we could've gotten in a lot of trouble with North Carolina," Corey said, speaking of some state officials' desire to have the Super Hornets based in Eastern North Carolina.
The parallel runway is central to the Beaufort County group's argument against the OLF, Tyrrell said, adding that the group had to convince lawmakers that the parallel runway is the Navy's best option.
"Any member of the Senate or Congress bears weight with the military," she said.
Saturday: Reaction from lawmakers.
Jonathan Clayborne may be reached by telephone at 940-4213 or via e-mail at jonathan@wdnweb.com.