10/25/07 — Duplin officials: Navy unlikely to pick Angola Bay for OLF

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Duplin officials: Navy unlikely to pick Angola Bay for OLF

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 25, 2007 1:45 PM

As the U.S. Navy continues its search for an outlying landing field in either North Carolina or Virginia, officials in Duplin County are still skeptical that the Angola Bay game lands are being seriously considered.

Referencing a discussion he had with an official from the state Department of Environ-ment and Natural Resources, Duplin County Manager Mike Aldridge said he doesn't think the Angola Bay site has much credibility.

"His take on it was the Washington site was still the favored site," Aldridge said. "He said it was probably a little late in the game for (the Navy) to be doing a lot of detailed work on other sites after they've spent so much money studying that northern site.

"And, based on what little I know, I tend to agree. I don't expect to hear anything further about it."

Other officials with the state and the Navy, however, say they are taking the process very seriously and will be weighing all their options -- including Angola Bay.

The Navy is searching for a suitable location for its F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets to practice aircraft carrier night landings, after its first choice in Washington and Beaufort counties came under heavy opposition from local and state political leaders -- largely because of its proximity to a wildlife refuge frequented by thousands of migratory birds.

That site, however, has not been removed from consideration.

"The Navy hasn't given up on the original site -- the Washington County site," said Troy Pate, member of Gov. Mike Easley's OLF Study Group and co-chairman of the N.C. Advisory Commission on Military Affairs. "It's still in the mix."

Currently, though, there are six additional sites in North Carolina -- two in Camden County, two in Gates County, one in the Hoffman State Forest on the Jones-Onslow county line and one in the Angola Bay game lands in Duplin and Pender counties -- under consideration, as well as 11 in Virginia.

And on Tuesday, as the Navy continues to weigh its options, the study group held a public hearing in Elizabeth City to give residents in the northeastern portion of the state a chance to voice their opinions.

Of the 300 to 400 people in attendance, Pate said, most seemed to oppose the OLF -- concerned about the effects it would have on their economies and their lifestyles.

"It was an interesting and emotional day. They basically said 'we support the military, but we don't want an OLF in northeastern North Carolina,'" he said.

That opposition was echoed in a letter read into the record by one of state Sen. President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight's staffers.

The study group, however, has not yet made a decision on what, if any, recommendations it will make to the governor.

"The sites have been explained to us and we've looked at them, but we haven't really had a discussion on them yet," Pate said.

The hearing did not touch on either of the sites in the southeastern portion of the state.

"This was strictly on the northeast. I don't know that they're going to have a hearing on the Duplin County site," he said. "I get the feeling that Duplin County folks aren't too concerned about this. I haven't heard too much from them, which leads me to belive they don't think they have a viable site."

Angola Bay, which straddles Duplin and Pender counties -- most of the proposed landing zone would be in Pender County -- is a 30-square-mile state hunting ground, comprised largely of pocosin wetlands.

And those wetlands, explained state environment and natural resources spokeswoman Linda Pearsall, are a potential sticking point for the construction of any site.

"The Navy is going to have to decide whether it's realistic or not," she said, explaining that DENR's role has simply been to collect environmental information. "There are significant wetland issues there, so if they decide to develop that site, they'd have some real issues."

She also explained that even if the Navy does decide to move forward, the small tract of available land might still create some problems.

"I'm not sure it has the proper orientation," Ms. Pearsall said. "They have a particular direction they need the runway to go, and I'm not sure the Angola site offers that."

Other local officials, including Duplin County Commissioner Harold Raynor, though supportive of the project, have questioned whether its distance from Oceana Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, make it a practical location.

In fact, Aldridge said that Angola Bay has been considered and dropped from the list before.

But, explained Ted Brown, spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command Public Affairs, because it was on the list submitted by Easley, Angola Bay will receive just as much consideration as the others.

"It's one of the sites in North Carolina we're looking at," he said. "At this point we are at a stage of collecting information and it's an ongoing process. I don't have any idea at this point what sites would be recommended for more in-depth consideration."

The list is expected to be narrowed to about five by mid-November.