WASHINGTON — Navy officials said Tuesday they will not build an outlying landing field for jets near a wildlife reserve in eastern North Carolina, a site widely opposed by local residents, environmentalists and state officials.
The 50,000-acre location, which straddles Beaufort and Washington counties, was removed when the Navy narrowed its list of finalists from more than 20 to five, which include two in North Carolina – Hale's Lake in Camden and Currituck counties and Sandbanks in Gates County – and three in Virginia – in Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties.
The new proposals "each have operational, environmental and population characteristics that make them viable site alternatives for further analysis," the Navy said in a news release.
The Navy will hold public meetings in the spring on the new proposed sites.
Fighter pilots would use the 8,000-foot OLF to simulate night landings on aircraft carriers. The darkened rural area would simulate a carrier deck on a dark ocean.
Navy officials said the strip is needed to reduce use of an existing strip in Virginia that is now surrounded by residential areas.
The final decision on the $230 million project could be more than two years away, the Navy said.
The original site in Beaufort and Washington counties was opposed by local residents and state officials.
Environmentalist groups that sued the Navy said it was too close to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, a stopping point for thousands of migratory birds, which they feared could pose a danger to jet airplanes.
Local residents had complained the site would hurt farmers who sold their land and reduce property tax revenues for the county.
"All of that hard work and vigilance over the past five or six years has paid off," said Jennifer Alligood, leader of a group that had opposed locating the field at the site that straddles Beaufort and Washington counties. "We have proven that grass roots can beat the system."
In a written statement announcing the finalists, the Navy said it "believes that by working with state and local officials, we can understand their perspective on the issues and seek common ground on ways to mitigate impacts and identify potential benefits."
The two remaining North Carolina sites still have plenty of skeptics, including powerful Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare. Locating the OLF at the Camden-Currituck site, within his district, or the Gates County location would hurt farmers and deter growth in the region and fail to create enough financial benefit, Basnight said.
All the counties listed among the finalists had earlier approved resolutions opposing the landing field.
Many North Carolina elected officials - including Gov. Mike Easley and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole - have tried to balance the state's military-friendly stance with environmental and citizen concerns. An Easley cabinet member met with Navy brass last March to seek alternative sites.
In a statement, Easley said he was pleased that the Navy removed the Beaufort-Washington site but added the state now must know what economic benefits come with the landing field before local residents "will be able to decide whether it is satisfactory to have the OLF in their communities."
Although the landing field would only generate 50 jobs, Dole has said it could provide future economic benefits, such as an East Coast base for the next-generation fighter jet.
But Dole reiterated Tuesday that broad local support for the landing field is essential: "I will oppose the Navy's efforts to acquire any site in North Carolina that fails to meet this standard."