The Navy announced Thursday it will suspend plans to build a jet practice airfield in a rural area of Virginia or North Carolina for at least three years, and instead will concentrate on finding a home base for Joint Strike Fighter squadrons in California.
The news was hailed by residents who have fought the project, and it marks a dramatic shift for the service, which has maintained for years that the airfield is critical to the future viability of Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.
It leaves open the question of whether Oceana, which was already threatened once with base closure, will be chosen to host the Navy's next generation of fighter aircraft.
The Navy has been trying to build an outlying landing field, or OLF, where jets could safely practice aircraft carrier landings, for more than a decade. In 2008, after a proposal in Washington County, N.C., failed, the Navy said it was considering five sites, in Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties in Virginia and Camden and Gates counties in North Carolina.
Opposition immediately turned active. Citizen groups created No OLF websites, and local governments passed resolutions against the plans, hired lobbyists to oppose them, and persuaded elected officials to pass bills that could stop or delay them.
In August 2009, the Navy announced it was delaying an environmental study for at least six more months so the Joint Strike Fighter could be taken into consideration.
Now, the study is being delayed again, until at least 2014, a spokesman for the Navy, Lt. Paul Macapagal, said Thursday. At that point, the Navy will re-evaluate whether it needs the landing field as well as possible East Coast locations for the new aircraft. In the meantime, the service will focus on West Coast locations for the jets.
Beginning in 2015, seven
F/A-18C Hornet squadrons and one fleet replacement squadron - totaling 100 aircraft - will be replaced by the F-35C, according to the Navy. After evaluating 134 Department of Defense installations, the Navy picked two as possible home bases in California: Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County and El Centro Naval Air Facility in Imperial County.
Thursday's announcement was welcome news to opponents of an OLF in North Carolina and Virginia.
"I think all of our persistence has paid off," said Camden County manager Randell Woodruff.
In Gates County, activists were glad but guarded. "We'd rather see it canceled," said Laura Dickerson, president of Citizens Against OLF.
U.S. Sen. Kay R. Hagan, D-N.C., said Thursday she was "thrilled" by the announcement. "The people I meet with are absolutely outraged at the prospect of an OLF in their backyards, and I have been working to prevent it," she wrote. "The Navy should thoroughly evaluate all existing OLFs and military airfields before even considering a new one.... I will continue to make the case in Congress that the Navy must not build an OLF in northeastern North Carolina."
In Virginia, Southampton County farmer and OLF opponent Lynda Updike was not surprised by the news. "The F-35 is the next generation of planes, and they're having problems with that," she said. Virginia Beach would not accept the louder F-35s, she said. "I don't imagine the people of Virginia Beach will tolerate it coming through their kitchens."
Surry County Board Chairman Reginald Harrison said the announcement could mean a real estate boom. Many properties across the county that have been for sale were held up because of the OLF possibilities, he said. "I think they' re going in the right direction," Harrison said. " I know the threat of an OLF tied up a lot of properties. "
Some Hampton Roads officials said Thursday they don't consider the Navy's announcement bad news for Oceana Naval Air Station.
"I've never felt more strongly about the future of Oceana, in that the Navy is extremely pleased with the way that we have addressed the encroachment problem," said Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms. "The Navy has told me directly that we have done a wonderful job."
Craig Quigley, director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, which lobbies to protect the region's military assets, said the announcement simply means the Navy will focus on the West Coast before planning for an Atlantic base. "To me, that's nothing more than common sense," he said. "I do not see anything that is threatening the future of Oceana."
Quigley said when the Navy decides where to base the Joint Strike Fighters on the East Coast, Oceana will be a strong candidate.
"I don't think you dare take it as a done deal," he said, "but by anyone's yardstick, Naval Air Station Oceana would be a solid, solid choice."
Pilot writers Bill Bartel, Lauren King and Linda McNatt contributed to this report.
Jeff Hampton, (252) 338-0159, firstname.lastname@example.org