The Next Oceana?

Opponents of a Naval pilot training facility in Western Tidewater have a powerful argument in their arsenal: that Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach is unsuitable as a master jet base for America’s next generation of fighter plane, the F-35.

If the landlocked, urban base has outlived its usefulness, the logic goes, why spend millions of taxpayer dollars building an outlying landing field to support an obsolete master base?

It’s a valid question, one the Navy itself acknowledged in its recent decision to delay release of an environmental impact statement on the proposed OLF. The EIS, which had been scheduled for release this summer, is an important step in the Navy’s quest to pick a site for the OLF and get it built. The environmental study is now on hold until the spring.

Opponents were heartened by this month’s announcement.

“This is undoubtedly a major victory for us,” said Tony Clark, chairman of Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field. “It supports the assertion that we’ve made all along: that the future of Oceana was suspect. It calls into question whether Oceana is going to be the master jet base in the future.”

If the answer is no, as Clark effectively asserts, what then?

The case against Oceana’s viability is so compelling that it could become a double-edged sword for opponents of an OLF in this region.

What if, instead of an OLF with a few planes a day touching and going on the soil of Western Tidewater, the entire East Coast master jet base was moved a couple of hours inland?

Farfetched? A friend first raised the possibility in a dinner conversation six months ago, and I dismissed it as interesting but fanciful. His point: If the Navy is hell-bent on building an OLF in Western Tidewater and upsetting our citizenry’s rural way of life, local elected officials should go for the “whole tamale”: the master jet base itself.

Fast forward to recent commentary by retired Navy Capt. William “Skip” Zobel, a former commanding officer at Oceana, and the idea of a master jet base in Western Tidewater gains credibility.

“If the Navy really wants to get serious about building another field, then they need to come out and say the site chosen (for an OLF) will be their future Naval Air Station,” Zobel wrote on the Web site “No one wants the noise without the economic benefit of a new base.

“Quite frankly, I think those plans were in the works when the site in Washington County (N.C.) was being considered. There were actual plans for the Washington County site to be the next Master Jet Base; however, this was kept very quiet because the Navy knew the political climate was not right at the time. Senator John Warner was too powerful for the Navy to announce that Oceana would one day move from Virginia, and the economic benefit of NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach AND Hampton Roads is staggering and would upset many local politicians. Well, Senator Warner has retired, but the area still reaps the benefit.”

As consensus grows on Oceana’s obsoleteness, look for Western Tidewater to emerge as a popular option for Virginia to keep the economic benefits of a Naval air station and provide cover for state and federal politicians who don’t want to lose a master jet base on their watch.

Wrote Zobel: “The Navy should shift its thoughts to one of two options. Allocate the money required and purchase the homes around Fentress to improve the runway environment for more realistic training. Or build a new Naval Air Station somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina. Use it as an OLF at first and then transition it to a full operating base. …

“The second option will send the signal that economic benefit is coming to the area selected, and the noise issues around Oceana and Fentress will eventually go away.”

Local elected officials have been united in their opposition to an OLF. It’s a political no-brainer, as an OLF offers few jobs, little economic impact and a whole lot of noise.

The prospect of a master jet base makes the politics a lot trickier. A major military installation would transform the economy of a community that has little to bank on in the decades ahead. Agriculture is increasingly less labor-intensive, and the area’s major manufacturer produces a product — paper — for which demand is expected to continue to decline.

The thought of a new anchor employer — which a military base unquestionably would be — would entice many public and private-sector leaders who worry about where the jobs of tomorrow will come from.

The side effects, however, would be massive: noise, traffic and congestion that dwarf what an OLF would create.

Watch this one closely in the years ahead. As the case against an OLF strengthens the case for a new master jet base, well-intentioned opponents of a military installation in Western Tidewater may find themselves in a much bigger fight than they bargained for.

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