Good Faith Fading In OLF Dispute

Everybody clearly has learned from North Carolina’s bitter but successful fight against a landing strip to serve Oceana’s jets. Unfortunately, they’ve picked up tips from the Washington County duel that could prove damaging to everyone’s interests, even to the region, its economy and the national defense.

The Navy is just beginning a study of five possible locations for an outlying landing field to train the pilots stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. Two are in North Carolina, three in Virginia.

The Navy will need to exercise some control over a huge parcel of land – the strip itself and surrounding acreage. Oceana’s future as the East Coast master jet base depends on replacing the field at Fentress in Chesapeake, now so encroached with development and polluted by ambient light that it is no longer ideal for carrier-landing practice.

The objections in Washington County were initially about property rights but, thanks to the Navy’s missteps, focused eventually and almost exclusively on the potential threat to migratory waterfowl. The birds proved a potent weapon, forcing the Navy into a retreat. Now it is considering the five alternatives.

Since the commonwealth doesn’t have migratory waterfowl overwintering in nearby estuaries, at least not many, opposition in Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties has focused on property rights, heritage and resentment, a potent mix in a place like Virginia.

It’s an emotional combination, and it’s already in full flower, inspiring 650 people to show up at Southampton High School recently.

Delegates and state senators representing the region have capitulated already and said, essentially, that they’ll support whatever residents want, or don’t. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that they’ve been joined by U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes and Bobby Scott, who don’t agree on much and who are supposed to have a broader national perspective.

As an ardent promoter of a strong defense, and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Forbes’ view is most surprising. He said he will not allow an OLF to be forced on Southampton, Surry, or Sussex. Forbes said that after the governor’s office made a similar and earlier commitment, the more important principle is to prove to residents that government can be trusted.

He is counting on negotiations among the state, the Navy and the localities to shake loose a site acceptable to everybody. But in the current atmosphere of pitchforks and recrimination, with opposition building in both Virginia and Carolina, that seems unlikely, to say the least.

The Navy is trying. The brass is open to just about any solution and is actively soliciting ideas. That sort of openness is refreshing.

But given the principles already raised by opponents – property rights, heritage, resentment – it’s hard to imagine them holstered by the prospect of jobs, or money, or economic development.

Still, the state and the Navy should continue to explore every option in a quest to produce a package that makes an OLF palatable. In the end, though, Oceana is too important to the region, the state and the nation to be allowed to wither for want of an OLF.

This was an easier calculation when the Navy focused on rural Washington County, but it is no different now.

If a site in Virginia is the Navy’s choice, and neighbors still oppose it, then the Navy and the state may be left with no choice but to take the land, in the larger public interest. It’s in the hands of the communities, at least partly, to see that the fight over an OLF never comes to that

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