The rallying cry to close the U.S. Navy’s Outlying Field took on new proportions Wednesday when a crowd numbering more than 200 turned out for a meeting in Coupeville.
Held at the Recreation Hall on Alexander Street, the building’s 150-person fire capacity was quickly filled and the entrances barred. The 60 or so people not able to get in huddled near taped-off doorways or peeked in through open windows.
Although the meeting was designed to identify impacts and come up with mitigation strategies, the majority of the crowd made their feelings clear about alternative solutions.
“This community, Whidbey Island, has outgrown OLF, close it,” said Frank Scharwat, earning a round of thunderous applause and cheering.
A handful of airstrip supporters were peppered throughout the crowd but they by far numbered in the minority. In fact, of the 150 inside the room, a vote showed that 138 believe Outlying Field should be closed.
Only 12 said the airfield should remain open.
One was Larrie Ford. The retired 20-year Navy man and Coupeville resident, attired in Navy sweatpants, stood proudly on the steps of the stage and argued against closing the runway.
It’s uncertain whether accurate tallies were taken from those outside and by the time the vote occurred, many had already left.
“I felt terrible about it,” said Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, one of the meeting’s primary organizers.
Conard, along with Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, set up the meeting initially thinking the recreation hall would provide enough space. Promotion from private advocacy groups, however, swelled attendance.
Some of the Navy’s most outspoken supporters, such as Sedro-Woolley resident Joe Kunzler, found himself recording the event from an open window.
Seated in groups of about 10 people, attendees scribbled down how jet noise has affected them. A chosen speaker then communicated the greatest impacts to the rest of the room.
Kelly Keilwitz talked about the effect on children at the nearby ballfields at Rhododendron Park; Glenda Cantrell repeated a story from a teacher who cited impacts on student learning; and Maryon Attwood talked about the negative consequences on business and having to sleep with ear protection.
Noise studies conducted by professionals at her studio registered noise levels of up to 82 decibels inside their sound-proofed home, said Attwood, and up to 113 decibels outside.
A retired audiologist talked about health impacts and having recorded noise level readings of up to 128 decibels and fourth generation Central Whidbey farmer Georgie Smith discussed the consequences of noise on Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.
Residents were also asked to vote on mitigation strategies they would prefer. Many reiterated their belief that the only course of action is to close the airbase, but when pressed by organizers, voted on a list of alternatives.
The most popular, receiving 68 votes, was to move all touch and go operations to Oak Harbor.
Kunzler said the meeting appeared “one-sided” and was somewhat eye-opening in the context that the impact is more wide-spread that he initially perceived. It’s not just a few people complaining, he said.
“It’s more than just a few noise makers ... The Navy needs to communicate with the public,” Kunzler said.
Representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen attended the meeting but made no comment.
Conard said she is hopeful the information, particularly a list of mitigation possibilities, will result in a few options for Central Whidbey residents while the fate of OLF continues to be debated.
When asked how the Navy will respond to the overwhelming sentiment expressed at the meeting, Conard said, “I certainly think it will get their attention. What effect it has, I don’t know.”