Is there a better place?

27 possible sites for a training field are winnowed to one -- and few people are happy

Staff WriterMarch 21, 2004 

PLYMOUTH--With landing gear lowered, the big, noisy Super Hornet jet slowed and swooped down on a Washington County cotton field as if to plop down on an aircraft-carrier deck.

About 200 feet from touchdown, it leveled off, powered up and roared away, clearing the way for another jet to repeat the maneuver.

The Navy staged the recent demonstration to show how pilots would practice landing F/A-18 Super Hornet jets at an airfield it wants to build there. Area residents trying to stop the project were unimpressed. They say a site miles from the ocean and near one of North America's most important winter retreats for migrating waterfowl is no place to mimic aircraft carrier landings. Plans would place the runway in an area at severe risk for bird strikes, which can damage aircraft or cause crashes.

But where can you find 45 square miles for an outlying landing field that will handle 31,000 noisy landings a year?

The Navy says it has looked elsewhere and stands behind its choice of 30,000 acres straddling the Washington-Beaufort county line, about 135 miles east of Raleigh. The site, near Plymouth, is in a lightly populated area midway between the Oceana Naval Air Station at Virginia Beach and the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station at Havelock, the stations where Super Hornet squadrons would be based. Land acquisition is under way.

Opponents, however, continue to press for a review of alternatives. Use existing military bases, they say, or bases and aircraft carriers that are no longer in service. Put the airfield in a huge, single-owner farm in Carteret County or at the under-used Global TransPark at Kinston. Build a platform in the ocean, some suggest.

Wary of antagonizing voters or the Pentagon during an era of military cutbacks, state and local officials are caught in the crossfire. Gov. Mike Easley wants to boost military spending that pumps $18 billion into North Carolina's economy, and communities near military bases fear that opposing the airfield would threaten existing bases or Navy plans to station more jets at Cherry Point. "Military friendly" is the catch phrase that state and local officials prefer to the "NO-OLF" message plastered on hundreds of signs near the planned airfield.

Easley, who rejected calls for a special session of the General Assembly aimed at gaining jurisdiction over the land, last month appointed a 19-member panel to gather more information about the landing field and to report to him by the end of April. He said that it is "good news" that North Carolina is the Navy's first choice for an airfield but that all involved need to talk more about the best place to put it. Easley is among those who say the Navy should build another runway at the Cherry Point air station in Craven County, an option the Navy has rejected as impractical.

Looking at one farm

Some say the Navy should reconsider Open Grounds Farm, a 44,000-acre grain operation near Morehead City in eastern Carteret County.

The U.S. Department of the Interior endorsed Open Grounds in November, calling the selected site too close to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where more than 100,000 snow geese, tundra swans and other birds overwinter. Aircraft noise could force the birds out, refuge biologists have said. Interior officials noted that environmental groups favored Open Grounds, where any damage to wetlands could be restored and where, with one owner, land acquisition would be less disruptive. Last month, Interior officials withdrew their objection to the Washington County site but reiterated concerns about the wildlife.

Dan Cecchini, who led the Navy's study of potential sites, said Open Grounds was deemed too close to existing training areas, including a Marine Corps bombing range.

Another drawback: The farm's manager, Gabriele Onorato, said Open Grounds is not for sale.

Owned by the Mario Visentini family of Italy, Open Grounds is one of the largest corn and soybean operations east of the Mississippi, agriculture officials say. The 9- by 12-mile tract has mile-long fields spreading across the tabletop terrain and towering metal grain bins that hold a combined 1.2 million bushels of grain. Onorato said the Visentinis would like to expand, not sell out.

"After we did all this," he said, "we don't want to make an airstrip out of it."

But Charles Allen, a Washington County farmer, said the land the Navy wants is not for sale, either, and has many owners. Buying from a single owner would be better than uprooting dozens of families, some of whom have owned the land for generations, he said. He farms near the buyout area and fears the Navy may one day want his property, too.

"There's got to be a better alternative," he said.

Picking a place

Before settling on the Washington County site, the Navy reviewed 27 locations, including some that critics continue to suggest. Two sites in Virginia were rejected because of proximity to major highways, airports or developed areas. A site in rural Craven County near Vanceboro was a finalist then deemed unacceptable because of extensive wetlands. The Navy also decided against building a runway parallel to an existing one at Cherry Point, citing conflicts with regular flight operations and congestion.

Early on, Craven County officials and Cherry Point supporters said they were willing to accept the airfield if jets would be based there because of the economic benefits it would bring. The Navy plans to place two squadrons, or 24 jets, at Cherry Point, which would bring about 800 military personnel, 2,342 dependents and an estimated $43 million in direct annual impact on the local economy.

No jets will be based at the landing field. Opponents say Washington County, where the field will be built, and Beaufort County, where the Navy is buying land for a buffer zone, have only noise to gain and 30,000 acres of taxable farmland to lose.

Marc Basnight, state Senate president pro tem, said the best place for the training facility is "in the water." In letters to North Carolina's congressional delegation, the Dare County Democrat said the Navy should consider building an offshore platform in the Atlantic Ocean or in Pamlico Sound. The Navy has a Mobile Offshore Base program, which says such platforms are feasible.

Basnight said a permanent platform would reduce the risk of bird strikes and provide a more realistic practice area because it is surrounded by water. Moreover, he said, it would be free of the economic liabilities associated with a ground site. The chosen site is in one of North Carolina's most depressed areas, and some critics say an airfield would stifle development by tying up land and discouraging industries and tourists. In addition, opponents say, it would put residents in danger from jet crashes.

A similar-sized training platform could be built 10 miles offshore for an estimated $400 million to $600 million, Basnight said.

The Navy says that's too costly. As planned, the landing field is expected to cost $186.5 million to build and about $253.1 million to operate over 30 years. The platform idea never moved beyond the research stage, Navy officials said, and it couldn't be constructed as soon as the Navy needs it. The landing field is scheduled to be in operation by 2007.

If an offshore platform is unacceptable, Basnight said, the Navy should consider using a decommissioned aircraft carrier. A study could determine whether refurbishing the ships is economically feasible, he said.

The best spot?

An idea to put the landing field at the Global TransPark at Kinston received a flurry of attention after retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton endorsed it. Shelton, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and co-chairman of the N.C. Advisory Committee on Military Affairs, said last month that a landing field would bring additional military flights and supporting facilities that would be an asset for the TransPark.

The TransPark was established 13 years ago as a manufacturing center that would create thousands of jobs in Eastern North Carolina. Plans called for huge cargo planes to dock near warehouses and manufacturing plants where they would deliver raw materials and ship out finished goods. But the business and the jobs haven't materialized. The TransPark's twin 11,500-foot runways -- among the longest east of the Mississippi -- don't carry the commercial traffic once envisioned.

Basnight said the state could consider deeding the 2,000-acre property to the military, eliminating the Navy's land acquisition costs. "A full business case review of this site seems very much in order," he said.

Darlene Waddell, the TransPark's executive director, said that its governing board had received no proposal to use it as a landing field and that she doubted the facility meets the Navy criteria for 30,000 acres in an isolated area. The TransPark is adjacent to Kinston's industrial park, with several manufacturing plants.

"The bottom line is, it's not a fit," she said.

The Navy agrees. Its study found the TransPark not feasible for the airfield.

Whether the Navy adequately considered alternatives is raised in federal lawsuits filed by Washington and Beaufort counties and three conservation groups that hope to block the airfield. A federal court hearing is scheduled for March 30.

Navy officials say all the alternatives were adequately evaluated, fulfilling requirements of federal environmental laws in the process. In a formal response to the lawsuits, the Navy said opposition to the Washington County site amounts to little more than a disagreement with the Navy's conclusions.

The conservation groups' lawsuit contends that the Navy began by studying 78 possible sites to base 10 squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets and arbitrarily rejected all but three -- Oceana, Cherry Point and a Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C. The lawsuit says the Navy did not consider using the other installations as home bases or as an outlying landing field.

According to the lawsuit, the Navy eliminated nine former military air facilities on the grounds that the large number of Super Hornets would be incompatible with general aviation and commercial aircraft. Twenty-two Army installations were deemed unacceptable because supporting facilities were too small. The Air Force determined that 27 East Coast facilities were not available. That left Navy and Marine Corps facilities.

Once the three potential Super Hornet bases were identified, the Navy began to look at nearby sites for the outlying landing field. In a separate study, the Navy said that 27 potential sites were identified after an initial screening and that six sites -- five in North Carolina and one in Burke County, Ga. -- were picked for further review. Besides Washington and Craven counties, the study suggested sparsely populated spots in Perquimans, Bertie and Hyde counties.

Basnight also suggested inactive military facilities in Carteret, Onslow, Jones and Moore counties. He said North Carolina has offered to accept a landing field because it has had a good relationship with the military. The location must be mutually agreeable, he said, and the state should push for more jets at Cherry Point because they will bring more people and more spending. But he acknowledged in an interview that any alternative is likely to encounter opposition.

"Nobody wants this if you think about it," Basnight said.

Staff writer Jerry Allegood can be reached in Greenville at (252) 752-8411 or at jerrya@newsobserver.com.

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