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Bills give landing field foes more power
Two local congressmen have introduced legislative amendments that would give more teeth to opposition to the Navy's proposed outlying landing field.
A measure by Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R- Chesapeake, would allow each county being considered for the practice field to have final say on whether to accept it. The Navy would be unable to build a landing field if the local government formally opposed it within 90 days of final site selection.
A second measure, by Rep. Walter Jones, R- N.C., would prohibit building an outlying landing field at Sandbanks or Hale's Lake in the northeastern part of his state. The Navy is considering those two sites, as well as three others in the Virginia counties of Southampton, Sussex and Surry.
The Navy long has wanted a new landing field, citing light pollution and scheduling overload at both Oceana Naval Air Station and at its current outlying facility, Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake.
Local governments and residents' groups have resisted these plans, saying they fear noise, lost tax revenue and a degradation of their rural lives. A site in Washington County, N.C., was abandoned after residents challenged the Navy in court and won.
Forbes said Wednesday that his measure is intended to mirror Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's promise to localities that they would have a say in the siting process.
"If localities don't want it, we will not force it upon them," Forbes said. "We're trying to bring some sanity back to this process."
He said he's working to correct the fact that Congress has never given the Navy any power other than eminent domain to use in these situations. This "strong-arm approach" has led to situations such as the Navy's rebuff in Washington County, he said.
"If you don't have a reasonable approach like ours, you have an extremist approach like Jones'," he added, referring to his colleague's measure to prohibit an OLF at the two North Carolina sites.
"This would be enormously detrimental."
Room at Cherry Point?In a statement released Wednesday, Jones offered the reasoning behind his amendment.
"The people of Eastern North Carolina have spoken loud and clear on this issue," the statement said.
"If the OLF is needed to support F/A-18s operating out of Oceana Naval Air Station, then Virginia should bear the burden."
Jones' amendment comes as other North Carolina lawmakers push to move the landing field to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C.
Two state legislators recently proposed building an OLF near Cherry Point and moving several squadrons there from Oceana. They argued that the area has both the space and the interest to support the planes and the field. The Navy declined the offer, citing training requirements.
That proposal came after North Carolina passed a law in April stating that the Navy cannot take property for an OLF in a county that does not already have a military base where aircraft squadrons are stationed. The state pegged this legislation on language in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the federal government from taking land without the state legislature's approval.
Building a field near Cherry Point would be permissible under the new law.
Vote still pendingForbes' and Jones' amendments were part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (HR2647), which was passed unanimously by the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. To become law, the measures must remain through a full vote of the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President Barack Obama's desk.
"Nobody knows, including the good Lord himself, what happens in the Senate," Forbes said, adding that, if his measure is taken out in the Senate version, he would fight for its reinsertion in conference committee.
To overcome constitutionality issues, a provision in Forbes' amendment would allow Congress to go ahead with a landing field in a particular area as long as it passed specific legislation to do so. That makes such a move doable, but difficult. As the legislative process grinds on, the stakeholders are watching.
Ted Brown, a spokesman with U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said it is Navy policy not to comment on pending legislation. He said the Navy continues to work toward a solution with the states and their residents.
Tony Clark, a Southampton resident and chairman of Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, said it's difficult at this point to measure what the new amendments mean.
"I think it's in the message-sending stage," he said.
"Even if it's not ultimately passed into law, it signifies to the Navy that they need to do a better job of finding locations in communities that are more receptive without dangling the specter of eminent domain."
Clark said there are areas that clearly do not want the Navy there, and others that clearly do.
"If they would go out and recruit a location, it would make it a lot easier for the Navy to do business in the future," he said. "If this passed, it would force them into this. If it doesn't pass, it would let them know that the way they're doing business is unpalatable."