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Overflow crowd says, ‘close OLF’
With the crowd numbering more than 200, a rallying cry to close the U.S. Navy’s Outlying Field south of Coupeville spilled into the parking lot Wednesday.
Held at the Recreation Hall on Alexander Street, the building’s 150-person fire capacity was quickly reached and entrances blocked.
The 60 or so people unable to get inside the Recreation Hall huddled near the taped-off doorways or peeked in through open windows.
The meeting was called by Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard and Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson to identify impacts and suggest mitigation strategies.
However, the majority of the crowd made clear their feelings about alternative solutions.
“THIS COMMUNITY, Whidbey Island, has outgrown OLF field, close it,” said Frank Scharwat, earning a round of thunderous applause and cheering.
A handful of airstrip supporters were peppered throughout the crowd but they by far numbered in the minority. In fact, of the 150 inside the room, a vote showed that 138 want to see Outlying Field closed.
Only 12 said the air field should remain open.
One who wants OLF to remain open is Larrie Ford, who retired from the Navy after 20 years and made his home in Coupeville.
Wearing sweatpants with “Navy” emblazoned on them, Ford stood on the steps of the stage and argued against closing the runway.
“I’m not going to lecture anyone about doing their homework but I did mine,” Ford said. “Let’s get on with life. I don’t believe in the sound of freedom technically, but freedom is not free.”
BY THE time a vote was taken, many who were standing outside the Recreation Hall had left.
“I felt terrible about it,” said Conard.
Conard and Price Johnson scheduled the meeting thinking the Recreation Hall would provide enough space.
Promotion of the event by private advocacy groups, however, swelled attendance.
By the time Conard and Price Johnson realized just how many people planned to attend, it was too late to change the location, Conard said.
To address the limited space, priority seating was given to Central Whidbey residents.
THE PREFERENTIAL seating was a source of grumbling from some who were denied access.
One the Navy’s most outspoken supporters, Sedro-Woolley resident Joe Kunzler, recorded the event through an open window.
It was only at the urging of the crowd that a Whidbey News-Times reporter, who showed up 30 minutes early, was allowed into the hall to cover the meeting.
While many of those inside the building called for shutting down the air field, the purpose of the meeting was to identify other solutions, Conard said.
MODERATOR VALERIE Reuther was commended by the mayor and others for keeping the crowd on task.
Separated into groups of about 10, attendees wrote how jet noise is affecting them.
A speaker from each group read the greatest impacts to the rest of the room.
Kelly Keilwitz cited the effect on children at the nearby ballfields at Rhododendron Park. Glenda Cantrell repeated a story from a teacher who talked about impacts on student learning. Maryon Attwood talked about the negative consequences on business and having to sleep with ear protection.
NOISE STUDIES conducted by professionals at her studio registered noise levels of up to 82 decibels inside their sound-proofed home, claimed Attwood, and up to 113 decibels outside.
Another woman said young farmers who are rethinking plans to spend their lives on Central Whidbey. Vivian Rodgers Decker, the wife of a Navy man with VAQ-129, was applauded when she spoke out against the airfield and voiced hopes for a retirement with less jet noise.
A retired audiologist talked about health impacts and having recorded noise level readings of up to 128 decibels and fourth generation Central Whidbey farmer Georgie Smith discussed the consequences of noise on Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.
Finally, Larry Richards claimed noise has not only increased, but there appears to be a change in flight paths, which has effected a new contingent of homes.
MEETING ATTENDEES were asked to vote on mitigation strategies they would prefer to see implemented.
Many reiterated their position that the only option is to close OLF Coupeville, but when pressed by organizers, voted on a list of alternatives.
The most popular, with 68 votes, was to move all touch-and-go operations to Oak Harbor. The second highest priority, 47 votes, was to reduce operations to two days a week.
While the meeting lasted only about 90 minutes, the debate continued into the next day with many airfield supporters and critics arguing their positions on social media websites, including the Whidbey News-Times website and Facebook page.
KUNZLER DESCRIBED the meeting as “one-sided,” but somewhat eye-opening in that the landing strip’s impact is more widespread than he initially perceived.
“It’s more than just a few noise makers,” Kunzler said. “There’s about a hundred or so and we’re going to have to deal with this and it’s going to be a long haul.”
His view on OLF Coupeville, however, remains unchanged.
Kunzler said the airfield is needed and must remain intact though “cost effective mitigation” is warranted.
KUNZLER CALLED on the Navy to hold its own community forum. It would be an opportunity for base leaders to explain directly the necessity of the air field and address other issues as well.
“The Navy needs to communicate with the public,” he said.
Conard said base leaders were not asked to participate in Wednesday’s meeting.
The intention was to hear from Central Whidbey residents and come up with list of community-supported solutions, not create a back-and-forth dialogue, she said.
Conard and Price Johnson said they planned to meet this past Friday and review the information collected. What happens next is unclear, though the general plan is to communicate their findings to Navy and Congressional representatives.
REPRESENTATIVES from the offices of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen attended the meeting. Price Johnson said Thursday she’d already heard back from Murray’s and Cantwell’s reps. They want to be kept apprised and involved in the issue.
Conard said she hopes the information gathered, particularly a list of mitigation possibilities, will result in options for Central Whidbey residents while the fate of OLF continues to be debated.
Asked how the Navy will respond to the anti-air field sentiment expressed at the meeting, Conard said, “I certainly think it will get their attention.”
“What effect it has, I don’t know.”