Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gates County Attends OLF Hearing

Yesterday the State of North Carolina OLF Study Group held a meeting in the Floyd Robinson Auditorium of the Mickey Burnim Fine Arts Center at Elizabeth City State University. The local group Citizens Against OLF was the organizer of a caravan of Gates County and adjacent county citizens who wished to attend this meeting to explain their opposition to building an OLF in Gates or Camden Counties. Two locations in each of these two counties had been suggested for the Navy re-evaluation of OLF locations after Washington County was rejected.

I joined the caravan for two reasons.

First, after doing some research I have joined many in believing that spending any money to build an OLF is a waste. Governor Timothy Kaine (D) and Senator John Warner (R) from Virginia have offered an existing facility southwest of Petersburg, Fort Pickett, that is nearly perfect for the Navy's purpose. It is 120 miles from Oceana, the base which is the only real reason an OLF is needed. The Navy's claimed "preferred" new location is 90 miles away in Washington County. The 30 mile difference at the 600 MPH these jets Cruise at is less than 5 minutes. It is therefore obviously convenient enough to serve as the backup to Fentress, the current OLF. The Navy claims that Fentress will stay and the new OLF is needed to expand operations, but that simply strengthens the arguments in favor of Fort Pickett.

Second I did not want the groups like NO-OLF to claim (as they previously have) that opposition to the OLF is a Democrat position and that Republicans support the OLF. I have talked with a number of fellow Republicans and for the reasons stated above wanted everyone to know that opposition was bipartisan.

The Gatesville group gathered at noon in the driveway of the old elementary school in Sunbury. As the caravan left, I counted 18 cars, and though a little tough to count with everyone moving around, I counted about 65 people in the cars.

Arriving at Elizabeth City State University one portion of the caravan turned in at the wrong driveway. We could not get to the parking lot we needed from that entrance and so we had to circle back to get to the parking lot.

We were early. Then we found out that we could not enter the auditorium as there was a bomb threat. The threat, received about 10:15 AM, prompted the Elizabeth City Police Department to search the building. The city fire department was also on standby. A friend from my church was a part of the caravan group so we went and grabbed a quick bite to fill the time until we could get in.

When we got back the people had formed a line to enter the auditorium, but they were still not letting people in. The crowd had grown and well over 100 people were waiting to get in. We joined the line. A couple of times someone came to the door and shouted out something about the delay, but the wind was strong and they had no loudspeaker, so few could hear what was said.

Finally we were allowed to enter the auditorium. The panel of people from the State of North Carolina OLF Study Group were already in place on the podium. As they were introduced, the names included (from left in photo) Jane Preyer (back to camera), Marion Deerhaae, Paul Spruill, John Crumpler, Bill Owens, William Wainwright, Sid Eagles, Bill Ross, Admiral David Anderson (U.S. Navy - not on the committee), David Peoples, Peter Daniels, Troy Pate and Ed Jones (arrived late and not in picture).

The first two people who spoke were a representative of Marc Basnight's office (whose name I missed) and David Brown (shown below), County Commissioner from Gates County. In reality, these two said everything that was said the rest of the meeting, however there were about 70 people who spoke after they did, each supporting one point of opposition or another. One thing that few people did besides Marc Basnight's representative was insult the Navy and ridicule the process they were following. I was glad that most people were respectful. I wonder why Basnight thought insulting our military was the right thing to do?

The essence of the most repeated arguments were as follows:

1. Our area is historically peaceful and we should not have an OLF here.
2. Our animals, birds and plants will all die off or leave if the OLF is built here.
3. The noise will be awful and we will all have to move or be miserable.
4. Our family has owned a farm for generations and we should not have to sell.
5. Property values will be devastated if the OLF is located here.
6. Businesses will move out if the OLF is located here.
7. This is Viriginia's problem, let them solve it.

David Brown was the first person to point out that the Governor of Virginia, a Democrat and the senior Senator from Virginia, a Republican, have offered a site that already exists at Fort Pickett, saving huge amounts of tax dollars and avoiding years of wasted time, animosity and controversy trying to build a facility. Since their proposed site is an EXISTING facility, it would seem logical that the Navy should have to explain why any NEW facility is even needed before they waste time picking what is the best location for a new site.

Like most bureaucracies though, the Navy seems determined to proceed with the process they started. They reject any option that makes more sense unless it is compatible with their original goal to build a new site.
Fort Pickett is not a new site, so the Navy is not interested. That was the clear impression the Admiral gave, but then he was so vague you could not be sure of anything.

By the time the public presentations started, there were around 300 people in the auditorium. It was a really long meeting, and a second session was planned for the evening. When the first meeting ended, there were only about 150 people left in the auditorium (shown below), but the lobby was still packed. After talking with a few of the people in the lobby, they turned out to be people who were staying for the second evening session, which promised to be equally filled with opposition. No one spoke in favor of an OLF for any of the six sites in North Carolina.

Many people complained about the failure of the Navy to communicate anything about their process. The process is secretive and leaves even pro military people frustrated with the way things are being handled.

One proposal that a couple of people alluded to is the Marc Basnight proposal to put the OLF on a floating platform in the middle of Pamlico Sound. This too did not seem to get any positive response from Admiral Anderson from the Navy. Other than sharing his belief that a win-win solution could be found based on pretty vague ideas that Admiral Anderson would not provide details on, Navy participation in this event was not helpful to the cause of selling any of the six sites in North Carolina.

This is the map (below) showing the six sites that are being considered in North Carolina.

Click on the map to bring up a large version.

The one final issue that does need clarification is the relationship between the Navy's process and the group that held this meeting. The State of North Carolina OLF Study Group is an advisory panel set up by Governor Mike Easley to suggest what position he should take with the Navy. It is not an official part of the Navy evaluation process. This meeting was held to gather public input for the Governor only. The Navy will hold its own meetings later.


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