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Commissioners take sides in OLF dispute

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson scolds audience members for outbursts during discussions Monday about jet noise in Coupeville. The board voted in a 2-1 decision to adopt a resolution supporting the U.S. Navy and Outlying Field Coupeville. The decision comes in the wake of a similar decree adopted by the Oak Harbor City Council. - Jessie Stensland / The Record
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson scolds audience members for outbursts during discussions Monday about jet noise in Coupeville. The board voted in a 2-1 decision to adopt a resolution supporting the U.S. Navy and Outlying Field Coupeville. The decision comes in the wake of a similar decree adopted by the Oak Harbor City Council.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / The Record

An ardent supporter of all things Navy raised a ruckus at the Island County commissioners’ meeting Monday during a discussion about the ongoing controversy over jet noise.

The commissioners followed in the Oak Harbor City Council’s footsteps by taking up a resolution in support of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Outlying Field Coupeville, a runway used for carrier-landing training.

The board adopted the resolution written by Commissioner Kelly Emerson. She and Commissioner Jill Johnson voted in support of the lengthy statement, while Commissioner Helen Price Johnson abstained over concerns about getting the county involved in the recent federal lawsuit filed against the Navy over the jet noise on Central Whidbey.

Price Johnson offered her own resolution based on the one passed in Oak Harbor, which proclaims strong support for the Navy base, but she removed mention of the outlying field.

She pointed out that the other commissioners wanted unanimous support for the resolution and she said her version would ensure that.

Price Johnson said she wanted to find common ground.

“I believe we have a crisis in our community as passions spool up and folks feel the need to dig in and defend their positions,” she said.

“And I think we have an opportunity to bring our community together by choosing words that don’t insert ourselves in the lawsuit.”

Johnson said Price Johnson’s proposal was well written, but fell short “because it did not address the vital connection between OLF and the future of NAS Whidbey Island.”

“To restrict that use puts the future of NAS Whidbey at risk,” she said. “I believe our economy is as fragile as an ecosystem and to risk doing anything less than fully supporting NAS Whidbey Island and its training needs and its mission is shortsighted and shows poor leadership.”

Most of the people in the audience, however, spoke out against the resolution, arguing that the noise created by the newer EA-18G Growlers is also unhealthy and untenable for residents of North Whidbey as well as Central Whidbey.

“This is the first summer that I have had a decent, peaceful way of life in which I felt safe and in which I felt my life and my health has not been threatened,” said Coupeville resident Cheryl Sato, referring to the temporary suspension of operations at the outlying field.

Others said they felt the resolution overstated the benefits of the base.

“As a long-time resident of Whidbey Island, I do not see this money being spent here on Whidbey Island or jobs being created for anyone but the military personnel,” North Whidbey resident Bonnie Newkirk said.

Michael Monson later echoed Price Johnson’s warning. He’s a leading member of the Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe & Peaceful Environment, which filed a federal lawsuit last month against the Navy.

It seeks to force the base to conduct an in-depth review of operations at the airfield based on National Environmental Protection Act standards.

Monson read a letter from the group, urging commissioners not to adopt the resolution as they will be taking a legal stance and draw the county into litigation.

Joe Kunzler, a Sedro Woolley resident and Navy booster, was outnumbered and lost his cool. He booed and interrupted other speakers during the public comment period, earning a lecture from Commissioner Johnson, the chairwoman.

While he was addressing the board, Kunzler told an audience member to “shut up” and called her a “Nazi,” creating an angry response from the audience. Johnson told him he couldn’t speak to anyone like that.

Kunzler crumpled up his statement and spoke off the cuff. He said the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve had a right to file the lawsuit, but he felt the group’s request for a restraining order to halt flights at the field until the study is completed was wrongheaded.

“OLF is important for aircrew safety and we do need an OLF while an (Environmental Impact Statement)  is going to hopefully have some civil dialogue,” he said.

Several in the audience cried out as Kunzler sat down and allegedly told a woman in the audience to “go to hell.”

Again, Johnson rebuked Kunzler and others in the audience.

“If you feel too heated, then I’m going to ask you  to walk outside, walk around, then come back in here,” she said.

“But we’re not going to have these continual outbursts and I have the sheriff standing by.”

Kunzler later apologized to the board, but said he wasn’t going to apologize to certain people in the audience.

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