OLF (Outlying Landing Field - U.S. Navy) study panel hears residents
March 20, 2004
By Bill Sandifer, staff writer
Washington Daily News, "The Voice of the Pamlico"
To submit a Letter to the Editor: rachel@wdnweb.com

Plymouth, North Carolina - The day's message ran the gamut from emotional pleas to biting criticism to dispassionate analysis.

But the core message at the Vernon James Center Saturday was community -- and the constant anguish many residents feel over losing it.

Washington and Beaufort county residents packed the meeting room, leaving standing room only, to have their crack at a precious three minutes to address a third meeting of Governor Mike Easley's joint state-Navy study panel.

The meeting allowed North Carolina officials -- state and private -- the Navy and the public to engage in face-to-face discussions of outlying landing field issues.

A roster of speakers was packed as well. So many spoke that, even with presentations limited to three minutes, the meeting didn't end till midafternoon.

A few speakers, however, managed to beat the time limit through charm, humor and occasional tears. One simply charged on till he was politely, but firmly, silenced.

It appeared to be a gathering of no small consequence. Most panel members, including Rear Admiral Stephen Turcotte and OLF project manager, Captain Stuart Bailey, appeared riveted to the speakers.

State Representative Arthur Williams was the lead-off speaker, addressing inequities that officials say will result from removing 33,000 acres from tax rolls.

"The poorest county in the state is going to have to pay the highest taxes in the state," he said. "I beg you to consider other, more suitable locations in North Carolina."

Washington County Commissioner Bill Sexton addressed the problems caused by a shrinking property tax base.

That impact, he contended, will ripple through the agricultural economy -- the backbone of Washington County -- and weaken the entire economy of the area.

Navy purchase offers, he said, are unreasonably low, and will financially hamstring families forced to find equivalent housing.

"I feel that everyone that gets bought out should be better off than when they started," he said, adding Navy offers won't meet replacement costs.

And those who aren't bought out, he said, should be compensated for loss of property values that may result from noise.

The Navy had earlier addressed that request with a simple "No" -- despite documentation from real estate agents and property owners regarding lost sales that, they contend, resulted from mandatory disclosure that an OLF may be built in the area.

Regarding adequate compensation, Charles Allen asked the panel, if the armed forces can afford the estimated $450 million in aircraft damage resulting from bird strikes, "what's wrong with paying replacement cost to families?"

Navy land purchase offers -- rumored to be in the $1,700-per-acre range -- are inadequate contended a number of speakers.

"This land is equivalent to the best that's on our planet," said Steve Barnes. "They're not makin' any more of it. Look at yourselves. You have become the enemy. Shame on you."

And a soil scientist backed up that claim on land quality, calling Washington County's blacklands "among the most productive soil in the state." Should the land be acquired, he added, the purchase offer should reflect that quality.

Speaker after speaker addressed the historic bond between land and landowner, pleading for the Navy to recognize that the blacklands emerged only through the back-breaking labors of generations of father-to-son ownership.

And forcing farmers and families from those lands and that heritage Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson likened to "a modern-day 'trail of tears.' ... If our elected officials will not defend (landowner rights in Washington County), they will not defend it in any county."

Richardson indicated it's a mistake to woo the military at any cost. Short of an acceptable solution that won't create undue hardship on one region to benefit another, he said, "Take the planes back to Virginia with the OLF. We don't want it. There's a better way."

Ironically, observed one farmer, the very act of creating farms out of swamps is what drew the Navy to the region in the first place. That large-scale reclamation created the virtually endless vista of level, flat -- and isolated -- patch of earth that resembles the ocean habitat of aircraft carriers. The land is ideally suited to practice difficult carrier landing procedures, says the Navy.

And the Navy explained in previous meetings that those conditions, the lack of night-time light pollution and a location roughly between Naval Air Station Oceana and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, all create desirable real estate.

But at what cost, asked Jeannine Saunders, a seventh-generation landowner?

"This beautiful county will never recover from this action," said Saunders, who had harsh words for her governor.

She contended worries over an upcoming base realignment and closure assessment have "overridden (his) ethics, courage, common sense and compassion. Governor Easley, please take a moment and look down the road to this landing field. How will you explain that, on your watch, a globally significant wildlife refuge was destroyed?"

However, several staff members from the governor's office on hand at the meeting countered that such face-to-face exchanges would not have occurred without Easley's leadership.

Saunders went on to squelch any doubts about Washington County's heritage, adding the county was named for a noted farmer -- George Washington.

Saunders' daughter, Ashley, displayed the carefully framed original 1744 land grant charter from King George II of England.

Their home, noted Saunders, was built between 1750 and 1760 and is the oldest home in the county.

Saunders spoke of hopes that the family land will pass from her sixth-generation, 81-year-old grandmother to herself and then on down to her eighth-generation children.

That brought a standing ovation from the audience.

Conservationists have described Washington County as "pristine" and an ideal habitat for wildlife. The state Division of Air Quality has also described the air in the county as "pristine."

Recognition of such resources as increasingly endangered has resulted in pointed questioning from environmentalists and conservationists concerned about what few details have so far emerged on the proposed OLF's infrastructure.

Mary Alsentzer, head of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation (PTRF), bore in on the Navy's estimate of 200 acres of paved or concrete surface to be built. Such a large, impervious surface, say experts, will result in huge amounts of runoff as rainwater rushes off the surface rather than being absorbed by the soil. She said the Navy's environmental assessment shows "a lack of sensitivity," creating a result that will be "a travesty and a tragedy."

During Friday's meeting in Raleigh, Turcotte said, although a stormwater management plan has not been developed, he indicated such engineering shouldn't prove difficult. "We just don't know which ditches to connect."

Those ditches comprise a network of canals that drain to rivers and sounds, areas of concern to PTRF.

Washington Park Mayor Tom Richter -- a 30-year veteran land use planner -- fired a volley at Navy officials for their OLF planning process.

"I am simply overwhelmed by the stupidity, the haughty, insensitive and unprofessional planning process the U.S. Navy has employed in this OLF siting process," said Richter. "It should be encapsulated for students to review in a class on how to do bad work for a good cause at great expense while, at the same time, creating well-deserved lasting enmity towards a client."

One speaker offered his take on the bulk of issues panel members -- experts in different fields -- have debated with Navy officials during the first two meetings.

Beaufort County resident Maurice Manning described as "arrogant" the Navy's contention that "federal ownership and management (of land) would enhance wildlife, implying that current farming practices are not; but we have increasing numbers of deer, bear, red wolves, beavers, bald eagles and tundra swan just to name a few.

"Let me see if I understand the Navy position. They will buy the farm I own, but no farmland is for sale to replace it; and capital gains taxes will take from 20 to 50 percent of the low-ball offers. (The Navy will) tell me what I can plant to discourage birds, make me pay rent to destroy my profit margin (as part of) my public service to Virginia Beach in providing noise mitigation and quality of life.

"Quality of life (here) will be diminished, whole communities destroyed forever as we are sacrificed on the altar of federal dollars for North Carolina and noise mitigation for Virginia Beach and Chesapeake."

The next panel meeting is slated for 10 a.m. Saturday in the Department of Administration building in Raleigh.