Roaring Controversy Over Navy Jets On Central Whidbey Island

The Navy recently notified Whidbey Island residents that training flights will resume, following many months of noise complaints and a moratorium.

(SEATTLE TIMES 24 DEC 13) … Nancy Bartley

COUPEVILLE, Island County – For the past six years, Babette Thompson has lived in a brown, cedar-sided house on Whidbey Island overlooking Saratoga Passage. Sometimes Navy planes flew past. Then there were more. And more. One day as a Navy Growler flew overhead, the vibrations were so intense the glass covering a watercolor in her hall shattered.

Not far from her home, another house sustained nearly $14,000 in window damage from jet vibrations, according to the homeowner.

Thompson had had enough. She and her husband, John, joined Citizens of the Ebey Reserve, one of two groups fighting to rid the island of Outlying Landing Field (OLF), Coupeville.

The landing strip was built in World War II when planes were fewer, slower and quieter. But the field is now a key training ground for Navy Growlers, Boeing-built jets based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Since the Growlers, which are used to suppress radar, arrived in 2008, the tolerance many of the residents once had for the Whidbey Island air station has turned to outrage. Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe & Peaceful Environment filed a lawsuit against the Navy in July.

Despite the complaints about an increase in noise from continuous take-off-and-landing training flights skimming over roof tops, the Navy is working on an environmental-impact statement to bring in two more squadrons of Growlers by 2015. The last day of the public comment period for the EIS is Jan. 3, 2014.

The Navy called a moratorium on using OLF in late May and agreed to hold off using the airfield until January 2014. Last week, the Navy notified residents that it will resume flying at that time but would limit the flights from OLF to about 6,000 a year.

There are 83 Growlers at the base, and by 2015, there will be 114. They won’t all be at the base at the same time since some may be deployed elsewhere, said Mike Welding, the air station’s public- affairs officer. And even though there is an increase in the number of planes, the Navy says the new jets won’t be used on aircraft carriers and therefore won’t need to do the touch-and-go training flights from OLF.

The residents are dubious.

In 2005, the Navy did an Environmental Impact Assessment, an overview of potential environmental impact but less detailed than a full environmental-impact statement, and told residents that the Growlers would have little impact and would be fewer and quieter than the Prowler jets they were replacing. Instead, the Navy’s flight statistics show the number of flights has steadily increased.

In 2005, there were 7,682 flights out of OLF, according to Navy statistics, compared with 9,669 in 2012. In the first five months of 2013, there were 5,688 flights.

Residents say training flights over the houses continue from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. at least five days a week. The Navy says that night trainings critical to pilot training, especially for night landings on aircraft carriers.

Noise Disclosure

Island County has an ordinance requiring all homebuyers to sign a noise-disclosure statement, acknowledging they’ve been warned about jet noise. The task is supposed to fall to the seller.

When county officials and the Coupeville mayor did a survey of those living in the west part of Coupeville, they discovered that about one-third of the residents were never warned about noise and had never signed a notice. Since the Growler noise has increased year by year, most residents didn’t realize they had purchased property in a Navy flight-training zone.

Complicating things, the county has two noise-disclosure forms. One was written in 1992, indicating the island was in the proximity of five airfields, public and private, and that residents might be exposed to noise exceeding 100 decibels, equivalent to being three feet away from a gas lawn mower. The other form is abbreviated, written in 2002 and does not mention decibels or the number of airfields.

Residents say the Island County Board of Commissioners and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, have been so in favor of the Navy that there has been no consideration for their situation, something that Larsen’s office denies while continuing to support the use of OLF. Residents say the county has been so eager to acquire the taxes from real-estate sales that elected officials have not adequately warned them about the jet noise.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson says the complaining residents should remember that “the Navy is the largest employer and the one with the most economic significance” to the island.

In 2012, the Island County Economic Development Council reported that the wages for enlisted personnel were $726 million compared to $66 million in wages from the retail industry, the next closest category, according to Ron Nelson, the council’s executive director. The wages translate into buying power and the county’s economic health, he said.

“Sound Of Freedom”

Ever since the Navy put planes in populated areas during World War II, there have been complaints about noise and counterarguments from those who say the roar of Navy aircraft is the “sound of freedom.” Over the years, the conflict between the need for Navy pilots to train and homeowners’ desire to live in peace in increasingly pricey and scarce waterfront property has intensified.

As bases have closed worldwide, air traffic has consolidated at the stations that remain.

“Over the ensuing years, population densities have increased around many of these installations, inevitably causing some to call for decreased air operations at these facilities over concerns about aircraft noise,” said Kevin Stephens, commander of Whidbey air station, in an email.

Whidbey now has the 450 sailors and six aircraft that were in Naval Station Rota, Spain, until 2005. It has the Electronic Attack Squadron transferred from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. In the decades past, squadrons from Sand Point, Alameda, Calif., and Barbers Point, Hawaii, were sent to Whidbey.

Today there are 46 Navy bases remaining across the world and 50 that have closed or consolidated, sending aircraft and service personnel to other stations.

OLF “is an integral and critical part of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, and is used primarily to train Navy pilots for aircraft-carrier landing operations,” Navy spokesman Anthony Popp said in an email. “OLF Coupeville is crucial to providing our pilots a facility where they can realistically train” and provides an area where pilots can fly day or night in conditions similar to being at sea, he said.

OLF “is close to its home base … keeping costs down; it is located in an area with low density development, and has very little ambient light which allows us to closely replicate the way landings are conducted aboard ship at night,” he said.

The Navy insists the noise shouldn’t be a problem. The Navy measures the noise level by a “modeling method,” averaging it out over a 24-hour period, which includes time when the planes are not flying. Residents measure the sound on handheld meters as planes fly over. They find the noise extreme.

“Flying Growlers in touch-and-go practices is incompatible with the human, animal and avian life in their path,” Thompson said.

Residents say the Growler is noisier than its predecessor because the Growler has wings designed with less lift, requiring more throttle and more noise for touch-and-go landings. The Navy says the Growlers get out of the area faster, thereby reducing noise exposure.

“The house shudders when they fly over,” said Robert Tank, a member of Citizens of the Ebey Reserve. He measured the noise level between 110 and 120 decibels. “You can’t do anything when they are flying. You’re locked out of using the phone, the television. You can’t have a conversation. You can’t have guests over.”

Many residents talk of sleeping with ear plugs to protect their hearing, and some have registered noise as high as 139 decibels. According to the National Institutes of Health, permanent hearing loss starts with exposure in the 110 to 115 decibel range.

Some of the residents formed the Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe & Peaceful Environment and in July filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle arguing that the Navy should have done a complete environmental-impact statement before flying the Growlers at OLF, asking the court to stop the planes from flying at OLF and to pay their attorney fees for bringing the action.

As the controversy continues, the community is increasingly divided and vicious.

No Harassment Charges

One elderly woman, whose letter to the editor was published in the Whidbey News-Times, went to the police after a man wrote in an online comment on the newspaper’s website that she should be “raped in her sleep” for her opinion. The News-Times removed the comment and then prevented other comments from being added. The News-Times reported the woman received harassing phone calls. Although police started an investigation, no charges were filed.

The intensity of the fight has a lot to do with the fear of the Navy leaving the island, say Navy supporters.

In 2005, as the Navy was looking at bases to close as part of the Base Realignment and Closure effort, Whidbey was considered because it had an aging fleet – the Prowlers. But Larsen lobbied to keep it open, and the Growlers came to Whidbey in 2008.

If Thompson had been warned, she and her husband wouldn’t have bought their property, she said. “I did know there was some kind of airfield there, but I was told there were only a couple of flights a day. We never signed any form of disclosure regarding the existence of the OLF.”

The Thompsons moved to Whidbey from Pennsylvania, where they lived close to Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

Babette Thompson said she never heard jet noise there and never expected to hear it when they bought property on Whidbey in Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

“I know it sounds harsh,” said commissioner Johnson, “but people make choices when you buy property … This is a buyer-beware state. If you get view property for $250,000, you should ask questions.”

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