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The setting was humble and wholesome, and so was the food. Fresh-cooked pork barbecue, green beans and homemade pound cake, all served on paper plates at picnic tables inside a giant barn.
The people, too, were humble. Even on a Saturday night when they could gleefully have celebrated their David-vs.-Goliath victory over the U.S. Navy, they refrained.
Instead of high-fives, hundreds of people exchanged thanks – first to God, then for one another, and finally, with a standing ovation, to the lawyers who represented them in court.
In fact, some guests even thanked the Navy for bringing them together.
“I don’t want to say, 'We beat them,’” Ronnie Askew said. “I want to say, 'With the good Lord’s help, we showed them the error of their ways.’”
Askew was one of about 500 people in this rural community who packed the Beasley family’s barn for what North Carolinians Opposed to the Outlying Landing Field called, “Our Blessed Celebration.”
It was a party more than four years in the making. One, two and three years ago, similar events packed the barn. But those were fundraisers or get-to-know-you gatherings for politicians, journalists and environmental groups they brought together to talk about the cause.
This night was a chance to savor, finally, the battle that reversed the Navy’s decision in 2003 to make 30,000 acres of farmland in Washington County into a place for Navy jets to practice simulated aircraft carrier landings.
In January, Navy Secretary Donald Winter removed Washington County – Site C, in the Navy’s voluminous study – from the service’s list of potential locations.
Instead, the Navy is now assessing a number of sites in Virginia and North Carolina. The field would be used primarily by jets based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.
Almost everybody initially wrote off Washington County’s opposition to the project, which would have displaced a few dozen people and affected additional farmers whose land the Navy wanted to lease.
Jennifer Ange acknowledged that she had her doubts, listening to naysayers back in 2003 and 2004.
“Everybody said, 'You can’t take on the government. You don’t have a chance,’” Ange recalled.
Instead, the 30-year-old Ange and her identical twin sister, Christy, became two of the Navy’s fiercest opponents.
They learned how to build a coalition, including such diverse groups as the National Rifle Association, Audubon Society and FreedomWorks, which opposes eminent domain and fights for property rights.
The twins, as everybody calls them, led a group of residents who traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., to lobby elected officials in the summer of 2006.
For many on the bus, it was their first trip to the city. They didn’t stop at any national monuments, instead visiting every single legislator’s office that would admit them. They distributed binders full of information contradicting the Navy’s assessment that Washington County would be an ideal spot for pilots to practice about 13,600 touch-and-go maneuvers annually.
Some of the two dozen speakers Saturday recalled the early days of the fight, when local citizens were getting to know lawyers from Kennedy Covington, the Charlotte-based law firm that represented them pro bono.
Kennedy Covington filed suit against the Navy in January 2004 – joined by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposed Site C because of its proximity to a national wildlife refuge that supports tens of thousands of birds each winter.
The farmers had a more emotional pitch, arguing that they shouldn’t be forced to give up land their families had farmed for generations. But it was the birds that really made the case – something a few speakers mentioned.
“Though they couldn’t be here because they left a few weeks ago, also celebrating with us tonight are the birds,” said Chris Kennedy, the Audubon Society’s representative in North Carolina. He held up an enlarged print of an editorial cartoon from the Charlotte Observer, showing a flock of geese heading out of Washington County, their usual “V” formation also a symbol of Victory.
“We rode those birds to the grave, and then we rode them back for the resurrection,” said David Peoples, Washington County’s manager. “And thank God for them.”
Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, used what turned out to be a key phrase in his remarks, two words discovered in an internal Navy e-mail in which one officer expressed doubts about the inclusion of Site C.
“We completely 'reverse- engineered’ a fundamentally flawed decision of the United States Navy,” Carter said to loud applause.
As happy as the crowd was to put an end to an unsettling time, many said they’d be sad to lose the camaraderie that the cause spurred.
Others saw the good that has come out of the fight.
“I think there’s a bond and a friendship that has united the community we didn’t have before,” said Doris Morris, the diminutive but influential spokeswoman for the No-OLF group.
Ronnie Askew said Navy officials didn’t understand the power of the community.
“They acted like they didn’t understand our way of life, and they don’t,” Askew said. “They move around every few years. They’ve got a house, but they don’t have a home.”