Town takes hard stance against increased OLF flight operations

Safety, lack of resources and impacts to economy and way of life were among concerns voiced by Coupeville Town Council members Tuesday in response to the Navy’s plans to increase the number of EA-18G Growler aircraft at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Council members held a workshop to discuss comments the town should include in the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Approximately 35 Growlers are expected to move to NAS Whidbey followed by a 47 percent increase in operation, including aircraft carrier landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville and Ault Field Base on North Whidbey.

Councilwoman Pat Powell raised concerns about the possibility of Whidbey becoming a terrorist target because of the aircraft.

“It’s Pearl Harbor,” she said, “if you put all 35 Growlers in Oak Harbor.”

Another concern is that the EIS doesn’t look at alternatives to having Growlers stationed at other bases, she said.

“One of the big things for me is there is no way to mitigate noise,” Powell said. “The only way to truly mitigate the noise is to not put all the jets on Whidbey Island. The only mitigation is to look at other bases, to me, that’s the key.”

The draft EIS presents three alternatives for distributing aircraft carrier landing practices between Ault Field and OLF Coupeville.

Practices at either field could increase between 20 to 80 percent, depending on the option chosen.

“We don’t want 80 percent of the flights in Coupeville,” Councilwoman Diane Binder said.

“We don’t want them at all.”

Coupeville hired two consultants to conduct an independent review of the EIS, paying specific attention to noise, housing and general NEPA compliance.

The consultants suggested recommendations for response to the EIS. Staff member used those memos to draft a statement, which council worked through Tuesday.

“This particular model doesn’t work great for OLF because it’s not your typical airport with planes going 16 hours a day,” said Mayor Molly Hughes. “But it is what it is.”

Only one point of interest, Coupeville Elementary School, was identified in the draft EIS. The town is asking that other areas in town be looked at, including the middle and high schools, the community green, Pennington Loop and a neighborhood off Parker Road.

The town requested specific mitigation measures, such as setting the days and times for flights.

Hughes said the staff also felt it was important to include background about the community and highlight its rural and cultural setting.

While Oak Harbor’s economy, history and culture are heavily steeped in the Navy base, the Coupeville and Central Whidbey economy are not. Rather, Central Whidbey is heavily influenced by tourism and small-farm agriculture.

“As the second oldest town in Washington, we promote our maritime and agricultural history, our historic buildings, outdoor recreation and Ebey’s Reserve,” the draft letter states. “The whole of Central Whidbey contributes to both our resident’s quality of life and our visitor’s experience. While we have lived with a wide range of aircraft equipment and an inconsistent number of flight operations at OLF for the past 60 years, a five or six fold increase to the number of currently approved operations is inconsistent and not tolerable to everything we have worked for in Coupeville and Central Whidbey. It is not compatible with our economy, history and culture.”

Council members said they were happy with the tone and introduction of the letter and agree the town needed to be firm in its message.

“We are fighting for the quality of life for our town and it is uniquely different than other parts of the island,” said Councilwoman Lisa Bernhardt.

Hughes said she and staff were compelled to also include comments in support of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, a historically significant, agrarian landscape that Coupeville is part of.

“It’s just ironic that 40 years ago one federal agency helped us preserve this and now another is using its rural nature to justify increased flight operations,” she said.

• A second draft of the town’s EIS response, with revisions addressed during Tuesday’s workshop, will be presented during at a council meeting 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14 in the Island County Hearing Room.