An online petition that aims to shut down the U.S. Navy’s Outlying Field on Central Whidbey garnered more than 800 signatures in less than one week.
Launched Saturday, the petition seeks to end all Navy flight operations at the landing strip, particularly touch-and-go maneuvers that are often conducted at night and require repeated approaches.
To find the petition, visit signon.org/sign/citizens-group-to-take?source=c.fwd&r_by=1538397.
“I’m shooting for 10,000, but I’m happy with 500 in less than 48 hours,” Ken Pickardsaid, in an interview Monday evening. “People are tired of this. They are beyond tired.”
Pickard is a lifelong Coupeville resident and the petition’s creator. He was also one of the key figures who worked to create Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve more than 30 years ago.
Attempts to reach Whidbey Island Naval Air Station officials directly for comment for this story were unsuccessful, but base commander Capt. Jay Johnston did release a statement earlier this week.
“This is the first I’ve heard of a petition,” Johnston wrote. “We maintain an open dialog with local officials in Coupeville and Island County and we will continue to discuss any noise issues in the future with them.”
Located off Highway 20 just a few miles South of Coupeville, the small landing strip has for decades been used by pilots from the base. The most common operations are touch-and-go maneuvers, in which pilots perform specifically to train for aircraft carrier landings.
Complaints about jet noise are an issue every year, particularly when training operations ramp up before carrier-based squadrons go on deployment, but 2012 has seen an increase in grumbling from Central Whidbey residents.
People have been showing up consistently at Island County commissioners’ meetings with claims that flight operations appear to be on the rise and that the base’s new jets, the EA-18G Growler, are louder than their predecessor, the EA-6B Prowler.
While debate continues about whether the aircraft is really louder or not, many of those complaints were reiterated again by petition signers, who range from farmers and business owners to elected and appointed officials serving a variety of Central Whidbey organizations.
“The planes may not be technically louder but they are much more painful. … The Navy must find a more remote place to fly and do it now,” Coupeville resident Jerome Squire wrote.
Others claimed the noise was having an adverse effect on their health and that complaints to the navy have fallen on deaf ears. Still others argued that frequent jet operations are inappropriate for Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.
“The plane(s) are making it impossible for us to use and enjoy our wonderful national reserve,” Coupeville resident Georgia Gardener wrote in her comments on the petition. “It is not appropriate for them to be there.”
Gardener is also a Whidbey General Hospital commissioner.
The reserve’s Trust Board has not taken a position on the issue, but at least one member, Fran Einterz, did sign the petition. He wrote on the petition that he was like many residents who have been “stunned” by the noise generated by the new jets and a difference in flight patterns.
“This past summer the flying around Coupeville rose to an intolerable level,” he wrote.
In a later interview, Einterz said he has nothing against the Navy and that his wish for the petition is to begin a discussion with Navy officials.
“I hope this petition will be used to spur a dialogue with the Navy and resolve our community issues,” Einterz said.
The petition, which was signed by many people on South Whidbey and other areas outside of the Coupeville community, had very few signatures from North Whidbey.
The issue of jet noise has seemingly created a difference of opinion between the two communities. That came to head this fall when the Navy was seeking public comment for a study concerning the transition from the Prowler to the Growler platform.
Sedro-Woolley resident Joe A. Kunzler, a self-appointed civilian “e-advocate-in-chief” for the base, even started a website, GrowlerNoise.com, just to combat Central Whidbey’s “progressive agitators.”
During several telephone and email interviews this week, Kunzler said he believed the petition was nothing more than a smoke screen for people who want to close the base and “bash” its service members.
“We’re all sick and tired of the outbursts of these people,” Kunzler said. “They have no respect for the sailors.”
“These guys are heroes,” he said.
If it comes to choosing between the reserve and the airstrip, which provides critical training for base pilots, for Kunzler the choice is clear.
“Get rid of the national park,” he said.
“Do you want to be the one to have to knock on a door at night and tell someone their kid is dead because they didn’t have a place to practice?” Kunzler said.
He also said one of the area’s top brass claimed at a recent Navy League meeting that it could cost up to $1 billion dollars to build a new airfield in an alternate location.
“If you close Coupeville, you close the base,” Kunzler said.
According to Navy officials, however, the exact cost is unknown. J. Overton, a public affairs officer with Navy Region Northwest, called the newspaper this week specifically to clarify the officer’s comments.
No study has been done and none are underway. The $1 billion reference was a descriptive response to a question from the crowd and was meant make it clear the Navy believes it would be cost prohibitive.
Pickard says the petition has nothing to do with patriotism or support for the armed forces.
“We’re not anti-Navy at all,” he said. “We support the Navy. We just don’t think they should be training in a national park.”
“There has to be a way these pilots can be trained. … This just isn’t the right place for it.”
Pickard said he started the petition after exhausting attempts to work with elected officials.
“We’ve had it,” he said.
Pickard is working to establish a non-profit group called, Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe and Peaceful Environment.
The group had its first organizational meeting Tuesday.