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Jet noise complaints pile up in Coupeville
Public anger centered on jet noise over Coupeville accelerated this week but the latest round of complaints may be a non-issue, according to U.S. Navy officials.
On Monday, a firestorm erupted when members of the community appeared before the Island County commissioners to lobby for an extension of a public comment period for the Navy’s planned transition of expeditionary electronic attack squadrons at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station from the older EA-6B Prowler to the newer EA-18G Growler aircraft.
The board agreed to ask for an extension and Ted Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the Navy has no problems honoring the request. However, he said there appears to be some misunderstanding about the proposal and the draft Environmental Assessment, or EA.
The transition will see an increase in the number of aircraft and operations but it only affects expeditionary squadrons, which are land based and don’t need to practice aircraft carrier training at the practice strip, Outlying Field.
“These particular squadrons don’t train at Coupeville and will not,” Brown said. “Therefore the EA has no impact on noise in Coupeville.”
Monday was the last day of the original two-week comment period and many in the standing-room only crowd at the commissioners’ meeting in Coupeville said they had only just learned of the document that day.
More than 20 people testified that the jet noise from operations at the airfield had become intolerable and begged the board to use its influence to officially ask for an extension.
“Our lives have literally been destroyed by these Navy overflights,” said Paula Spina, owner of the Crockett Barn off Fort Casey Road.
The idea of adding additional aircraft and increasing flight operations is simply unacceptable, she said.
According to the assessment, the transition would occur over a two-year period, from 2012 to 2014. Three existing squadrons at the airbase, each with a complement of four aircraft, would receive a fifth Growler under the plan.
A reserve squadron could also potentially be relocated to Whidbey from Joint Base Andrews. It also would received a fifth jet.
The plan also calls for a hefty increase in total annual operations, which varies in number under three possible alternatives. They range from an additional 1,961 operations per year to 2,178.
While there may have been some confusion about where these aircraft will fly, Spina and many others made it clear the existing noise has become more than just a nuisance. Several people said it was even affecting their health.
Gerald Roberts said he has an existing and severe condition and voiced serious concerns about how the flyovers are impacting his health.
“I don’t want to die from this,” Roberts said.
Others said the flyovers were affecting their livelihood, a concern seconded by business leaders. Lynda Eccles, executive director of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, said jet noise is a real problem and has heard firsthand from visitors in vacation rentals who said it was so bad that their children had to spend the weekend indoors.
“I appreciate our military but I think they are going to extremes now and we seriously have to look at this issue,” she said.
Still others said their complaints to the Navy aren’t taken seriously. Rosehip Farm and Garden owner Linda Bartlett, who said her employees have to wear ear protection while working, said their concerns have been met with disrespect or worse.
“One time, they actually targeted our farm after complaints of the noise,” she claimed. “I feel like as a community, this is something we really need to discuss.”
Many people also complained about the new Growlers already stationed at the base. Although Navy officials maintain that studies show the new jets to be quieter than their predecessors, many Central Whidbey residents disagree.
“The new jets hurt when flying over,” said Sharlyn Hubbard, a Holly Berry Road resident. “My insides feel like they are being cooked.”
Finally, there was a general consensus among the crowd that the public was not adequately informed about the environmental assessment and the transition plans for the expeditionary squadrons.
Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard noted that there was a July 27 press release announcing the public comment, but if it came to Town Hall she didn’t see a copy. She noted, however, the release did indicate that hard copies of the assessment were available at libraries in Oak Harbor and La Conner, which resulted in some chuckling from the crowd.
Conard said she would like to comment on the Navy’s proposal but also needed more time to do so. She requested an extension.
Many made similar requests and Island County Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola agreed to draft an official letter asking the Navy to consider the community’s petition.
Commissioner Kelly Emerson abstained from the vote, saying she wanted to hear first from base officials. She said the Navy met its deadlines for the comment period. Also, she said she mentioned this in her newsletter and that none of her constituents were present at Monday’s meeting.
“I would not feel (I was) properly representing them if I voted on this,” she said.
The public comment period has been extended to Aug. 31. Comments can be emailed to Whdb_naswi_pao@navy.mil or mailed to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Public Works Department Environmental Division, 1115 W. Lexington St., Oak Harbor.