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Scoping meetings highlight growing tensions on North Whidbey

With Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, left, Oak Harbor Chamber President Jason McFadyen, right, and opponents of OLF Coupeville looking on, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson presents information to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Commander Capt. Mike Nortier during the EIS scoping session in Coupeville. - Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
With Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, left, Oak Harbor Chamber President Jason McFadyen, right, and opponents of OLF Coupeville looking on, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson presents information to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Commander Capt. Mike Nortier during the EIS scoping session in Coupeville.
— image credit: Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

Dramatic exchanges that occurred during the Navy’s public information meetings last week illustrated rising tensions over jet noise.

Within the first hour of the first scoping meeting in Coupeville, two men traded heated words that led to one of them being ejected by town marshals.

During the second meeting, held in Oak Harbor, community leaders on both sides of the debate made unscheduled presentations to Capt. Mike Nortier, commanding officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

During the third meeting, in Anacortes, members of an anti-noise Coupeville group were asked to leave because they did not have permission to set up an information table.

More than 340 people attended the three scoping meetings, held Tuesday through Thursday, marked the start of an Environmental Impact Statement examining the potential environmental effects associated with ongoing EA-18G Growler airfield operations at NAS Whidbey’s Ault Field and Outlying Landing Field Coupeville.

The study will also include the proposed introduction of two additional expeditionary electronic attack squadrons and the addition of aircraft to the fleet replacement squadron.

Joe Kunzler, a Sedro-Woolley resident who calls himself “Growler Joe” on a blog, was escorted out of Coupeville High School Tuesday after engaging in an argument with retired educator Harry Toulgoat, of Coupeville.

A recording of the confrontation was posted online by Kunzler.

A critic of Kunzler’s pro-Navy blog, Toulgoat said he approached him with a question about OLF. Toulgoat said he showed Kunzler a statement he prepared to submit at the forum with the title, “Please stop destroying Coupeville.”

Kunzler said he saw this as an “anti-Navy tirade” and refused to discuss it further.

Toulgoat accused Kunzler of being “short-sighted” and against “effective communication.”

“Stop being so arrogant and such a bully,” Toulgoat told Kunzler.

Toulgoat also criticized, what he called a “threat,” when Kunzler posted online stating that he would “send a chill down the spine” of those who don’t support the Navy.

“All those school children that you grew up with, that didn’t want you as their friend, they had you pegged as a problem from the beginning, and you remain so now,” Toulgoat said.

Toulgoat said later he was referring to Kunzler’s postings describing how he was teased by kids at school because of his disabilities, which includes Aspergers syndrome.

Toulgoat said he was not aware that Kunzler had Aspergers at the time of the argument.

During the confrontation, Kunzler shouted that he was “trying to discuss with you and you talked over me 75 percent of the time.” He was escorted out of the scoping meeting while continuing to shout, “I’m not leaving.”

Both parties expressed regret Thursday about the altercation.

At the public meeting the following night in Oak Harbor, Kunzler said he regretted that he “got so emotional” and that it was a “very frightening” experience to be thrown out of the meeting.

“I feel shame and guilt if that officer felt threatened by my actions,” Kunzler said.

“What I want to know is what gave that man the right to personally insult my disabilities and not listen to me attempt to explain that actually I said repeatedly we need the costing for a new OLF,” he said in a written statement.

“I’m not putting crosshairs on Coupeville and I’m certainly supportive of mitigation conversations.”

Toulgoat said he is “embarrassed and ashamed” of his part in the argument.

“I apologize to Joe Kunzler,” Toulgoat said. “I’m sorry. It was hurtful and disrespectful.”

Still, Toulgoat said his anger on the issue was ignited by Kunzler’s comments online.

“We have a right to say, ‘I don’t think it’s a good choice,’” Toulgoat said. “But I’m sorry and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

The following night, during the Oak Harbor forum, community leaders both for and against the basing of Growlers at NAS Whidbey and usage of OLF Coupeville for pilot training, presented a series of documents to Capt. Mike Nortier, commanding officer for the base.

Traditionally, scoping meetings do not include formal presentations, but involve a series of informational stations at which visitors can ask questions and speak with Navy staff and pilots.

Tables are placed in the center of the room where comment sheets can be filled out.

At the Oak Harbor meeting, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, and Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Jason McFadyen presented to Nortier letters, a resolution of support, an economic impact study and petitions in support of the EIS, the base and its operational missions.

“It was important for me to demonstrate to the base captain the level of support out there,” Johnson said Friday. “There has been some strong visuals from the anti-OLF side, and I wanted there to be a visual representation that there is strong support.”

Hearing that a pro-OLF presentation might occur, organizers of the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, the group that filed a lawsuit over jet noise, decided to present their own materials to Nortier.

“We decided to present our materials in a formal manner as opposed to just slipping them in the comment box,” said Michael Monson, COER president.

“We wanted to present them with our documents in a way that they were unable to just shove into a corner.”

“That we were organized, had intelligently gathered materials, and not to be dismissed.”

Johnson said that COER has had ample opportunities in the past to present its views on the issue and characterized COER’s presentation as “grandstanding.”

During the meeting in Anacortes, Monson said COER members were told to leave by an Anacortes School District representative as they set up an information table outside the scoping meeting.

After COER members refused to leave, Nortier and Ted Brown, the Navy’s Installations and Environmental public affairs officer, talked with school officials and the group was allowed to stay.

“I gained great respect for Capt. Nortier and Ted Brown,” Monson said. “Gentlemen and professionals.”

Mike Welding, NAS Whidbey’s public affairs officer, confirmed the incident in Anacortes, but said it was a “non-issue” that was resolved quickly.

Monson said COER members weren’t aware they needed a permit to set up their information table.

Welding indicated that some forum-goers commented that Monson and his associates were “intimidating,” and the COER members were asked not to be aggressive in their approach.

“We didn’t want anyone to feel they couldn’t walk freely into the meetings without issue,” Brown said.

“As long as they followed those guidelines, they were allowed to stay.”

Monson said that his group was disappointed by the meetings.

“Most of the people we spoke to that attended were insulted by the quality and presentations, and lack of knowledge of the navy personnel,” Monson said.

“They were angry that the Navy would dismiss us as not worthy of a quality or thoughtful presentation.”

“The most heard comment was, ‘just how dumb do they think we are?’”

 

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