OLF battle far from finished

Published 10:03 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2007

By Staff
Recent developments surrounding a Navy-proposed outlying landing field in the region bring to mind an old adage: Be careful what you wish for — you just might get it.
In the past week, the OLF battle has been turned on its ear. Politicians far and wide have jumped on the anti-OLF train in recent days, but when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., said a few days ago that Site C was a bad idea, the Navy noticed. Because she’s a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and she’s no newbie to politics, Dole’s determination that Site C is “simply not feasible” carries real weight.
Suddenly, a practice field for military pilots in Washington and Beaufort counties doesn’t look like such a lock. The folks who have rallied and written and hoped and prayed just might succeed in dissuading the Navy from its Site C plans.
But there’s a big difference in getting the Navy to rethink its preferred site and getting the Navy to abandon its plans to put an OLF in eastern North Carolina. And Beaufort County residents are by no means out of the woods.
Instead of breathing a collective sigh of relief now that Site C’s viability is being challenged, Beaufort County residents must face the reality that comes with that relief: If Site C is a no-go, Site E may be next up at bat.
Site E, on the border of Craven and Beaufort counties, will impact far more Beaufort County residents than Site C would. The effects of a landing field there would be felt from the Cypress Landing residential development to school classrooms from Chocowinity to Bath.
Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s chief economic developer, argues that the Navy’s latest OLF impact statement “totally ignores the economic revolution here.” During public hearings on the matter, Thompson said the Navy’s look at Site E ignores the notion that Beaufort County is becoming a “waterfront mecca.”
Meanwhile, Beaufort County school board Chairman Robert Belcher said the noise from potentially nearby Super Hornets would compromise area schools’ shared mission to provide “educationally sound” learning environments.
Chocowinity schools are about nine miles from the center of Site E, Belcher said during the Navy’s recent public hearing in Beaufort County.
But those two voices are not enough to keep Navy jets from our backyards. Their messages are important, but two small voices can sometimes get lost, particularly when there are others saying Site E is a not-so-bad choice.
Dale Hall, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has said Site E is the best of the five options the Navy has in terms of lessening impact on wildlife and habitat. There’s no refuge to consider there, which is not the case with either Navy-preferred Site C or Site D in Hyde County. And as the head of the Navy’s “cooperating agency” in the OLF impact study, Hall has an opinion that will not fall on deaf ears.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., has said he, too, would support Site E. And leaders in Craven and Carteret counties have offered support for the Navy’s plans because they are thinking about keeping nearby Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point healthy.
The reality is this: If the choice comes down to Site C or Site E, Site E may be the lesser of two evils. There aren’t thousands of migratory waterfowl at the site to be protected — or to offer us any protection.
Folks in this region have rightly rallied against Site C. They have focused energy there because Site C has been — and remains — the Navy’s preferred choice. But Jennifer Alligood, chairwoman of North Carolinians Opposed to the Outlying Landing Field, said gaining Site C naysayers amounted to winning a battle in a very long war.
And as long as Site E, too, is still in the running for an OLF, the regional battle is far from finished.