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Central Whidbey petition calls for closing Navy field near Coupeville

An online petition that aims to shut down the U.S. Navy’s Outlying Field on Central Whidbey garnered nearly 950 signatures in about two weeks.

Launched Saturday, Dec. 1, the petition seeks to end all Navy flight operations at the landing strip, particularly touch-and-go maneuvers that are often conducted at night and require repeated approaches.

To find the petition, visit signon.org/sign/citizens-group-to-take?source=c.fwd&r_by=1538397.

“I’m shooting for 10,000, but I’m happy with 500 in less than 48 hours,” said Ken Pickard, in an interview last week. “People are tired of this. They are beyond tired.”

Pickard is a lifelong Coupeville resident and the petition’s creator. He was also one of the key figures who worked to create Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve more than 30 years ago.

Attempts to reach Whidbey Island Naval Air Station officials directly for comment for this story were unsuccessful, but base commander Capt. Jay Johnston did release a statement last week.

“This is the first I’ve heard of a petition,” Johnston wrote. “We maintain an open dialog with local officials in Coupeville and Island County and we will continue to discuss any noise issues in the future with them.”

Located off Highway 20 just a few miles south of Coupeville, the small landing strip has for decades been used by pilots from the base. The most common operations are touch-and-go maneuvers, in which pilots perform specifically to train for aircraft carrier landings.

Complaints about jet noise are an issue every year, particularly when training operations ramp up before carrier-based squadrons go on deployment, but 2012 has seen an increase in grumbling from Central Whidbey residents.

People have been showing up consistently at Island County commissioners’ meetings with claims that flight operations appear to be on the rise and that the base’s new jets, the EA-18G Growler, are louder than their predecessor, the EA-6B Prowler.

While debate continues about whether the new aircraft is really louder or not, many of those complaints were reiterated by petition signers, who range from farmers and business owners to elected and appointed officials serving a variety of Central Whidbey organizations.

“The planes may not be technically louder but they are much more painful … The Navy must find a more remote place to fly and do it now,” Coupeville resident Jerome Squire wrote.

Others claimed the noise was having an adverse effect on their health and that complaints to the Navy have fallen on deaf ears. Still others argued that frequent jet operations are inappropriate for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

“The plane(s) are making it impossible for us to use and enjoy our wonderful national reserve,” Coupeville resident Georgia Gardener wrote in her comments on the petition. “It is not appropriate for them to be there.”

Gardener is also a Whidbey General Hospital commissioner.

The reserve’s Trust Board has not taken a position on the issue, but at least one member, Fran Einterz, did sign the petition. He wrote on the petition that he is like many residents who have been “stunned” by the noise generated by the new jets and a difference in flight patterns.

“This past summer the flying around Coupeville rose to an intolerable level,” he wrote.

In a later interview, Einterz said he has nothing against the Navy and that his wish for the petition is to begin a discussion with Navy officials.

“I hope this petition will be used to spur a dialog with the Navy and resolve our community issues,” Einterz said.

The petition, which seemed to have just as many people from South Whidbey or off-island communities as it did Coupeville residents, had very few signatures from North Whidbey.

The issue of jet noise has seemingly created a difference of opinion between the two communities. That came to head this fall when the Navy was seeking public comment for a study concerning the transition from the Prowler to the Growler platform.

Sedro-Woolley resident Joe A. Kunzler, a self-appointed civilian “e-advocate-in-chief” for the base, even started a website, GrowlerNoise.com, just to combat Central Whidbey’s “progressive agitators.”

During several telephone and email interviews last week, Kunzler said he believed the petition was nothing more than a smoke screen for people who want to close the base and “bash” its service members.

“We’re all sick and tired of the outbursts of these people,” Kunzler said. “They have no respect for the sailors.”

“These guys are heroes,” he said.

If it comes down to choosing between the reserve and the airstrip, which provides critical training for base pilots, for Kunzler the choice is clear.

“Get rid of the national park,” he said.

“Do you want to be the one to have to knock on a door at night and tell someone their kid is dead because they didn’t have a place to practice?” Kunzler said.

He also said one of the area’s top brass claimed at a recent Navy League meeting that it could cost up to $1 billion to build a new airfield in an alternate location.

“If you close Coupeville, you close the base,” Kunzler said.

According to Navy officials, however, the exact cost of the Outlying Field is unknown. J. Overton, a public affairs officer with Navy Region Northwest, called the newspaper this week specifically to clarify the officer’s comments.

No study has been done and none are under way. The $1 billion reference was a descriptive response to a question from the crowd and was meant to make it clear the Navy believes it would be cost prohibitive.

Jim Slowik, president of the Oak Harbor Navy League, said the base has a major economic presence in the city and the county, supplying thousands of jobs to the area and dumping millions of dollars into the island’s economy.

The practice field is an essential element to its mission and can’t simply be abandoned, Slowik said. The training that happens there insures the safety of American pilots who land on aircraft carriers.

“From the Navy League’s standpoint, we support the Navy and OLF where it is,” Slowik said.

“It’s so important to keep these guys safe,” he said.

Slowik also noted that the airstrip has been there as long as the base has been on Whidbey Island. People who build houses or move to the area know that because they have to sign agreements that acknowledge both the base’s presence and the noise from jets, he said.

Support for the island’s armed forces means you accept the with the good and the bad, he said.

“It’s a trade-off and you have to understand that,” Slowik said.

But Pickard says this has nothing to do with patriotism or support for the armed forces.

“We’re not anti-Navy at all,” he said. “We support the Navy. We just don’t think they should be training in a national park.”

“There has to be a way these pilots can be trained … this just isn’t the right place for it.”

Known as an activist by some and a pot stirrer by others, Pickard said he started the petition after exhausting attempts to work with elected officials. For him, and many others, this is the last straw, he said.

“We’ve had it,” he said.

Pickard is working with a few others to establish a non-profit group called, Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe and Peaceful Environment. The group had its first organizational meeting last week.

According to Pickard, the petition will be sent to the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama.

The intent is not to offend service men and women and he said he sincerely hopes the Navy can identify an alternative place to train but it can’t continue in Central Whidbey, he said.

“The Navy just needs to stop flying here,” Pickard said. “That’s it. It’s over.”

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