An independent federal agency is asking the Navy to continue working with the community and carry out long-term mitigation regarding its planned expansion of training flights in rural Central Whidbey.
Milford Wayne Donaldson, chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, released a letter last week to Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer as part of negotiations to reduce adverse impacts by the loud EA-18G Growler aircraft to historic properties.
Donaldson is urging the Navy to work with stakeholders for continual monitoring of the effects the proposed changes in training will have, including physical and “intangible” impacts. In his letter, he said attention should be paid to “how property owners and tourists interact with historic properties on Whidbey Island.”
With ongoing monitoring, the agency also recommends continuing to work with stakeholders to develop mitigation efforts based on those results.
“The Navy should be open to providing funds to support such measures with the goal of advancing the long-term preservation of the historic characteristics of the (Central Whidbey Historic District),” the letter states.
Donaldson suggests the support should include more than the funding offered during previous negotiations for rehabilitation of the historic Ferry House.
Allyson Brooks, state historic preservation officer, said she was glad to see the council’s encouragement of ongoing consultation with the community.
“I hope (Spencer) listens to the federal advisory council and continues discussions on potential mitigation possibilities,” Brooks said.
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she was pleased to see the noise monitoring suggestions. She emphasized the value of “real-time noise data” in learning what impacts of the increased flights will be.
Throughout the process, which is required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, multiple interested parties suggested the only way to truly protect the properties was to not increase flights at Outlying Field Coupeville. The ACHP acknowledged these comments, but said it had “no basis” to question the expansion of Growler operations at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
In a statement, members of the Sound Defense Alliance said they were “heartened that the ACHP has brought to light the magnitude of harms” caused by the proposed expansion. It also said it will continue to advocate for fewer Growlers and flights.
The agency included recommendations for the Navy to pursue additional noise minimization. In the short term, it suggested determining if nearby structures are eligible for sound insulation treatments, similar to a program in San Diego County. Over time, it suggested developing new noise-reducing technologies and landing software.
Steve Bristow, president of the Oak Harbor Area Council of the Navy League, said in a statement the Navy conducted negotiations in “good faith,” while “other consulting parties seemed singular in their pursuit of operational avoidance.”
Navy officials have said that OLF provides an ideal location for simulating conditions for landing on an aircraft carrier. The “preferred alternative” identified from the Environmental Impact Statement is to add 36 Growlers to NAS Whidbey and perform most carrier landing practice at the Coupeville outlying field, resulting in a four-fold increase in operations in the area.
Because the Central Whidbey Island Historic District is considered significant according to the National Register of Historic Places, a process began in 2014 to consult with interested groups and officials on how to minimize negative impacts.
In July 2018, the Navy began negotiations on mitigation efforts with the state historic preservation officer, Island County commissioners, the Town of Coupeville, National Park Service, the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve and others.
On Nov. 30, the day after its proposed mitigation was rejected, the Navy abruptly ended Section 106 consultation. The federal historic preservation agency was then required to provide the Navy secretary comments on the plan’s impact to historic properties and landscapes and offer mitigation recommendations.
To gather input, the agency held a public meeting on Dec. 19 in Coupeville that was attended by 340 people. Consulting parties, community members and a member of Congress contributed to the more than 250 comments sent to the ACHP regarding mitigation.
The partial government shutdown that started in December delayed the agency’s response and pushed its deadline to Feb. 19.
In his letter, Donaldson called the case “challenging” given the number of consulting parties, the important operational needs of the base and the “historic values present” in Central Whidbey.
The letter’s final recommendation was to “better coordinate environmental and historic preservation reviews.” The agency suggested the Navy evaluate its efforts in this long process to coordinate its future National Environmental Protection Act and Section 106 reviews to reduce confusion.
Regulations require the Navy secretary take the comments into consideration before reaching a final decision. A NAS Whidbey spokesperson said its personnel was in the process of reviewing the recommendations and awaited the decision.
Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes and Kristen Griffin, reserve manager with the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing did not respond to requests for comment.