04/30/04 — An issue: Senate candidates focus on outlying landing field

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An issue: Senate candidates focus on outlying landing field

The Washington County outlying landing field for Navy Super Hornet aircraft has become a subject of increased attention by U.S. Senate candidates Richard Burr and Erskine Bowles.

That is good since one of them will be going to the Senate and the issue well could need some increased involvement at that high level.

But those concerned about the issue — on both sides — will need to try to distinguish the difference between what the candidates are saying and what they accuse each other of saying.

Congressman Burr, the Republican, says he supports locating the field at the Washington County site — unless he determines the Navy used a faulty process in selecting it.

That “unless” is precisely what environmental and wildlife groups, local governmental bodies and most of the property owners contend. They have expressed particular concerns over the fact that the site would be adjacent to a federal wildlife preserve which attracts hundreds of thousands of migratory fowl each year — posing a threat to birds and aircraft crews alike. They also argue that it will have an adverse effect on the present and potential economy of an area that already is suffering.

The Navy insists that the site is the only one meeting its needs and that it has met the required environmental guidelines. It already has spent millions to buy some of the more than 320,000 acres despite lawsuits yet to be heard.

A federal judge has ordered a temporary halt to further acquisitions.

But back to the politics of the issue. Bowles, Democrat and former White House chief of staff, said last week that he opposes the site chosen by the Navy.

Burr fires back that in March of 2002, Bowles supported the site. He cited a New Bern newspaper article attributing that position to Bowles. Says Burr: “I guess this is another issue, like trade, where Erskine Bowles’ position is still evolving.”

But the Bowles camp bristles at the allegation, branding it “a total lie.”

The newspaper quoted Bowles as saying two years ago that the state “would welcome the Navy’s F/A 18 Super Hornet squadron, as well as an attendant outlying landing field.” Apparently there was no reference to site location.

Last year, in a letter to the Washington Daily News, Bowles said that locating only two of the F-18 squadrons at Cherry Point was not enough to balance out the negative environmental effects of a Washington County site for the outlying landing field. In that letter, he urged the Navy to look for alternate sites.

That is precisely what opponents of the Washington County site — including some members of a task force appointed by the governor — have suggested.

As for the two senatorial candidates, there does appear to be a fairly clear difference of positions, at least at the moment. Bowles says “no” to the Washington County site. Burr gives it a conditional “yes,” couching that position with the condition that he doesn’t determine the Navy used a “faulty process” in making its selection.

The encouraging thing for North Carolina is that the issue at least has made it to a front burner in the concerns of some one who will be going to the U.S. Senate.

Published in Editorials on April 30, 2004 12:26 PM