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Base closure criteria adopted

On Tuesday the Defense Department released the guidelines it will use to make decisions on base realignment and closure in 2005. They are nearly identical to the criteria used in every closure and realignment recommendation since 1991.

“I would say that’s probably good news,” said State Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor. “Previous selection criteria resulted in NAS Whidbey not being on the list.”

The Navy community of Whidbey Island has been braced for the selection criteria for some time. The last time the base was considered for closure was in the 1991 round, Sehlin said. He felt a lot has changed to make Whidbey even more vital to the Navy since then.

Other air stations have closed, and Whidbey has added the P-3 squadrons. Basically the Navy has to maintain a certain ratio of planes to aircraft carriers, and they have to have someplace to put those planes when they’re not on the carriers, he said.

“All the parking places are pretty much used up,” said Sehlin, a retired naval officer who once commanded NAS Whidbey. There is no more room to consolidate air bases.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell, a retired Navy pilot, felt that of the eight criteria listed, the overriding factor will be military value. Other factors such as economic impact to the community and environmental impact are side issues.

“Military value will still be the prime mover, even with all the other factors,” he said. Without having had a chance to look over the criteria, McDowell said he was concerned about one difference from previous lists. While those lists have simply noted “environmental impact” as a factor, the 2005 criteria includes “the impact of costs related to potential environmental restoration, waste management, and environmental compliance activities.”

McDowell said this could be interpreted to mean that bases which have been good stewards of the land, such as Whidbey, would be penalized; that they could be considered for closure because the cost of closure and cleanup would be less than other bases.

McDowell felt Whidbey would fare well, but said the county commissioners will continue to work with state and federal legislators to keep Whidbey off the BRAC list.

At NAS Whidbey, base commander, Capt. Stephen Black said he was not at liberty to discuss or speculate on the future of the base.

“My job is to produce the data to support the process,” Black said. “I feel the data will speak for itself.”

He noted that the data have spoken favorably for Whidbey in the past.

Oak Harbor mayor Patty Cohen said there were no surprises in the criteria, which is a good thing.

“I think it will play out well for the community,” she said.

She felt NAS Whidbey’s training environment is a valuable factor. the city and county have growth ordinances which create a favorable environment for the Navy’s operations. While many bases are feeling the squeeze of encroaching growth, Whidbey zoning ordinances restrict encroachment on the base and its environs.

Cohen expects the city, county and community groups such as the NAS Whidbey Task Force will meet to discuss the draft selection criteria, and perhaps submit a unified public comment from the community.

“We will continue our proactive campaign,” she said, “as we have for the last 10 years.”

The release of the draft selection criteria opens a 30-day public comment period. The final selection criteria will be published no later than Feb. 16, 2004, and is then subject to congressional disapproval by Act of Congress until March 15, 2004.

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