Rough Sailing for Navy Landing Field

RALEIGH — Thanks to a court order, Washington and Beaufort counties are hanging tough in their fight against a U.S. Navy landing field — although to read some of the published reports, one might get the impression that the area was inhabited only by tundra swans, rather than farmers trying to save their land and livelihoods.

The fate of the landing field — and the communities that consider it the worst of all possible neighbors — may be tied up in the federal court system for many months. For now, an injunction bars the Navy from “directly or indirectly” taking any further steps to develop the field, including land acquisition, site preparation, and construction.

The judge’s comments suggest that the Navy didn’t do its homework before announcing in September 2003 that it was pursuing development of a field where carrier pilots could practice landings far from the congestion surrounding the Oceana, Va. and Cherry Point air stations.

Quiet death of field possible

Allen Page, state executive director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said he would not be surprised if the landing field died a quiet death in the court system. He noted that the Navy has already generated a lot of bad press for itself that would only get worse if owners are forced off their land.

Page compared the situation with the stream buffer regulations that were pushed by North Carolina a few years ago. Legal review of these rules exposed a host of presumably unintended consequences — for example, the owner of a flooded-out house would, in many cases, have been forbidden by law to rebuild if the house was within a stream buffer. Ultimately, the law placed too many restrictions on private owners’ use of their land, aside from paying taxes on it. While Page thinks it’s possible that the stream-buffer issue may resurface some day, for now it’s been quietly withdrawn, saving embarrassment to the bureaucrats who promoted it.

Much the same scenario may play out with the landing field, Page said. He said local activists are doing an excellent job disseminating information about their plight to anyone who will listen. Fiscally conservative groups such as CSE make an immediate connection because of the property rights aspects of the case. And for the activists on the Left, there’s always the welfare of about 20,000 tundra swans and 44,000 snow geese to consider.

In this election year, reporting from both the mainstream and conservative press continually harps on how polarized the nation has become, with the Iraq War providing the principal wedge.

Yet there are still rare cases where the Right and Left can build temporary coalitions around an issue, usually for completely different reasons. The Navy’s plan to buy up farmland in the Washington and Beaufort counties provides a good example.

The Department of the Navy wants to create an Outlying Landing Field to serve F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters based at Oceana Naval Air Station and Cherry Point Marine Air Station. The proposed location, known as “Site C” in Navy documents, would cover 23,000 acres of Washington County, and 7,000 acres of Beaufort County. The Navy wants to begin construction as early as April 2005 to have the landing field open by the summer of 2007. Oceana already has an alternate landing site, Fentress Field, but the Navy has deemed it unsuitable for further development because it’s too close to residential areas.

Birds as hazards, property rights

The landing-field controversy could be described as being fought on two fronts.

First is the environmental front, which essentially involves saving the Navy’s F/A-18 jets and the birds at the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge from each other. Ron Merritt, a retired U.S. Air Force major who headed numerous investigations involving collisions between aircraft and birds, describes the swans, geese, and other large waterfowl that inhabit the refuge as “flying bowling balls” and a real hazard. An impact with a 15- to 20-pound waterfowl can force a pilot to reach for the ejection handle. The bird refuge is only five miles from the proposed landing field, so Merritt concludes that it’s wishful thinking to assume that the sky is big enough for both supersonic fighters and dense flocks of waterfowl.

Second is the property rights front, which involves about 100 landowners, mainly family farmers, and about one-fourth of the arable land in Washington County. Washington County activists maintain that the landing field would gobble up about 75 family farms and 200 agricultural jobs. Meanwhile, the noise from about 32,000 training flights a year would degrade the quality of life and real estate values for nearly everyone else. The loss of about $100,000 in annual property tax revenue would cripple public services in an already poor community.

Opponents spread their message

Thanks to the Internet and affordable video production, landing field opponents have been able to mount an effective public information campaign.

North Carolinians Opposed to the Outlying Landing Field posts its latest news online. Also, it began distributing in July a 28-minute documentary film about the landing field, narrated by famed North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton.

Significantly, the initial focus of the film is on the loss of farmland and the displacement of residents. It then touches on how the landing field, especially jet noise and the loss of productive agricultural land, will stymie revitalization efforts in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

Only at the end of the film is the waterfowl problem discussed, and then mainly to highlight safety threats to humans. One of the highlights of the film is farmer Giles Stallings describing the crash of a Navy Harrier jump jet near his tobacco barns on Sept. 16, 1996. The pilot ejected safely and the only loss was a piece of expensive machinery. However Stallings said that if the wreckage had come down among his storage tanks, there could have been a major explosion.

Documentary director Tex Fuller is clearly no Michael Moore. While his film is obviously trying to push Washington County’s position, it focuses on facts over rhetoric and emotion. It also makes clear that, above all, the community is fighting for its livelihood, the foundation of which is family farms. Although the local bird population gets its due, its needs are placed well below those of people.

Still, an endorsement is an endorsement, even if it comes from liberal environmental groups that don’t have a particularly good track record on property rights or embracing free-market approaches to natural resource management.

Community leaders in the embattled counties have shown plenty of tenacity in getting endorsements from a wide range of interest groups, many of whom would scarcely acknowledge each other’s existence under other circumstances.

NO-OLF lists about 100 supporters in its literature. These include a predominance of environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society and the N.C. Sierra Club, along with a leavening of mainstream farm groups such as the N.C. Farm Bureau and N.C. Grange, and even a handful of conservative bastions such as the National Rifle Association and Citizens for a Sound Economy.

Not surprisingly, the plight of farmers, some of whose families have occupied their land since Colonial times, has gotten less attention in the national media than the welfare of the 100,000-some migratory birds that inhabit the Pocosin refuge during parts of the year.

Judge gets involved in dispute

When Chief U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle, a Reagan appointee and one of North Carolina’s more conservative jurists, granted the preliminary injunction against the Navy in mid-April, the New York Times’ report focused strictly on the possible danger to migratory bird populations.

But a close reading of Boyle’s order on the preliminary injunction shows that the judge also was fully aware of the property-rights aspects of the case.

The suit was filed in January by Washington and Beaufort counties, and by the National Audubon Society, N.C. Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. The plaintiffs sought to keep the Navy from taking further action on planning and building the airfield.

Boyle wrote that in granting an injunction, a judge must balance the possibility of irreparable harm to either side, the likelihood of the plaintiff’s being successful in making its case, and the public interest.

In this case, the scales tipped clearly on the side of the two counties and their environmentalist allies, on all three points, Boyle wrote.

In this paragraph, Boyle showed that his first concern was for the landowners:

“If a preliminary injunction does not issue, the Navy will begin acquiring land, which will result in irreparable harm to the approximately 100 landowners who reside in and around the area…

“Once the land is purchased, these owners will be permanently displaced. Additionally, if a preliminary injunction does not issue, the environment could be irreparably harmed… through the increased noise that would be produced by the Super Hornets, the loss of essential nourishment for the birds through the loss of neighboring farmland, and the increased danger of utilizing the various lakes and refuges by the birds through the threat of a collision with the planes,” Boyle wrote.

Boyle’s comments on both the public-interest aspects of the case, and the probability of success by the plaintiffs suggest that the Navy may face a tough fight in the courts.

In a nutshell, the counties and the environmental groups have already done a fairly convincing job in arguing that the Navy did shoddy homework — as mandated by the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act — when it began pushing for developing Site C as a landing field.

The court will rule at a later date about whether the Navy completed an adequate environmental review.

But for now, Boyle wrote that the plaintiffs “provided significant evidence that the Navy may have failed to take a hard look at the environmental effects of its decision.”

One example Boyle cited was that the Navy evidently disregarded information from a mathematical model used to predict bird hazards to aircraft. This data predicted that the landing field would be under a “severe” bird-strike advisory for half the year. However, “the Navy continues to maintain that the impact on waterfowl would be mitigable and minor,” Boyle wrote.

Boyle also noted that the Navy has failed, even in a time of severe anxiety over national security, to present any evidence that the public interest would be harmed by failure to construct the landing field.

The judge’s conclusions are preliminary, based on facts presented in court, and avoid any sweeping generalizations. Even so, he all but states that the Navy did shoddy preparation and disregarded environmental laws.

Perhaps understandably, many Washington County activists paint the Navy’s actions in a more sinister light. They think their community was deliberately targeted because it is poor, rural, and sparsely populated. Meanwhile, the Navy wants to avoid conflict with developers and homeowners in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, home to Oceana and many other installations.

By way of proof, the NO-OLF Web site features the text of an October 2000 letter from the U.S. Atlantic Fleet headquarters that explicitly says noise reduction is the principal reason why the Navy wants to study an outlying landing field.

Lawyers for Washington and Beaufort counties are continuing to pursue evidence that would support arguments that the Navy didn’t consider alterative sites carefully enough before targeting the two counties. Boyle on June 30 denied a motion by the Navy’s attorneys that would have barred opponents from gathering further reports and testimony about the site and its possible hazards.

Fliss is a contributing editor at Carolina Journal.