Meeting planned to ease Navy jet noise concerns

An online petition to stop military exercises at the U.S. Navy’s airfield on Central Whidbey will not succeed, but it may lead to improvements in communication, according to Congressman Rick Larsen.

The petition began Dec. 1 and now has more than 1,000 signatures. Organizers plan to send it to Congress and President Barack Obama but the Second District Democrat said this week that their efforts will not result in the closure of Outlying Field.

“OLF is not going away,” Larsen said.

A longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Larsen is a strong supporter of the Navy and its presence in Western Washington.

Over the past year Larsen worked to retain plans to make Whidbey Island Naval Air Station home to four squadrons of the sub-hunting P-8A Poseidon aircraft.

Larsen disagrees with one of the main tenets of the petition, that flight operations are inappropriate in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, which is part of the national park system.

“You can easily make the reverse argument because OLF was there before the reserve,” Larsen said.

“We need to recognize, the reality is OLF is where it is and the reserve is where it is,” he said.

But while the congressman is steadfast in his support for the practice landing strip and the Navy’s mission on Whidbey Island, he said base leaders should be cognizant of the concerns of Central Whidbey residents.

To that end, a contingent of local elected officials and community leaders are planning to meet with base officials to discuss the noise issues surrounding the airfield.

Expected participants include Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, Oak Harbor Navy League President Jim Slowik and a representative from Larsen’s office.

Conard, who is organizing the meeting, declined to say whether she supported the petition personally – she had not signed it as of Friday – but did say that she started trying to set up a meeting before the petition began, Dec. 1.

“There is some work to be done here, for sure,” Conard said.

Jet noise has long been an issue for Central Whidbey residents but complaints have spiked this year. Many claim the base’s EA-18G Growler aircraft, the replacement to the EA-6B Prowler, is louder than its predecessor and that flight operations seemed to have increased in 2012.

Conard said meeting with base officials has helped soothe noise problems in the past but that problems often arise again due to transition.

“It’s clear to me now you need to renew those contacts as people change in position,” she said.

Along with establishing a means to continue relationships with new officers, possibly through somewhat regular meetings, Conard said she hopes to discuss the return of a published flight schedule.

That would give residents and business owners some predictability. Price Johnson said she would be advocating for the same thing, saying it would be extremely helpful to those who live with the noise year round.

“It would be a positive step,” she said.

The base used to publicize its touch-and-go operations at the airfield but that screeched to a halt following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Larsen also supports the return of some type of schedule, though it may not be as thorough as those released prior to 9/11 because the Navy can’t violate its force protection guidelines.

People should, however, be able have enough information to plan around the Navy’s flight operations, he said.

“I thinks it’s a fair question to ask and fair question for the Navy to consider,” Larsen said.

He also noted that the base’s presence on Whidbey Island is in no way threatened by the recent controversy at OLF. There are many other bases around the county that are dealing with much tougher encroachment issues, he said.

Any claims that the criticism of Central Whidbey residents somehow put the base at risk are “specious arguments,” he said.

“The ability to express your opinion is one of the great things about this country and people should not be afraid to do it,” Larsen said. “They just need to know people may have different opinions.”

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