Residents seek class-action lawsuit against Navy over Growlers

Attorneys representing 24 individuals and couples in Central Whidbey filed a lawsuit Thursday that seeks damages from the Navy over EA-18G Growler aircraft practice.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, seeks class-action status and claims that the noise of the aircraft and the planned 400-percent increase in aircraft landing practice at the Outlying Field Coupeville represents a “physical taking without compensation” because of the decreased value of the residents’ homes.

The residents are represented by two national law firms, Susman Godfrey and Marcella Law.

Steve Morrissey, a partner with Susman Godfrey and counsel to the class of plaintiffs in the case, said the law firm was invited to attend a meeting of the Sound Defense Alliance in Coupeville in April at the Crockett Farm in Coupeville. Attorneys spoke to residents of Admirals Cove, the Central Whidbey neighborhood in the OLF flight path, who described the impacts the Growler noise has had on their lives and the value of their properties.

Morrissey said the lawsuit is the only way the residents can get monetary relief for the impact the Navy has had on their lives.

“The lawsuit alleges that the 24 named plaintiffs have sustained tens of millions of dollars in damages,” according to a statement from the law firm. “Damages to potential class members from the area surrounding the airstrip will likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

After a process governed by the National Environmental Policy Act, the secretary of the Navy announced in March the decision to bring 36 more Growlers to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and to conduct 80 percent of the practice at OLF Coupeville. The projected number of “passes” at the fields will increase from 3,000 a year to more than 12,000.

Morrissey said common sense dictates that the small airstrip in the midst of residential development and farmland is not the right place for vital warplane practice.

“It looks like a small farm with an airstrip,” he said. “The ideas that thousands of flights will take place there strikes me as kind of crazy.”

In the record of decision, the Navy explained that OLF Coupeville provides invaluable training to Growler pilots because of the terrain, surrounding darkness and other factors that mimic aircraft carrier landings. In comparson, training at Ault Field in North Whidbey is challenging because of the amount of activity from other aircraft, plus more residents are affected by the noise.

Steve Bristow, past president of the Oak Harbor Council of the Navy League, said real estate values on Whidbey correlate to national trends without correlation to Navy flight operations.

“There can be no conversation about property values without the air station’s Fortune 500-level economic engine and its impact.”

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the group Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve filed lawsuits in federal court in July against the Navy, contending the Navy’s analysis under NEPA for the increase in Growlers inadequately examined the impact the jet noise has on human health, the natural environment and historic resources.

Morrissey said the law firms were building their case before these lawsuits, but that they have the potential to impact the class-action lawsuit.

According to Morrissey, there is precedence for the litigation against the Navy. Residents of Virginia Beach filed a class-action lawsuit against the Navy 18 years ago over the noise from an increase in F/A-18 Hornets at the nearby base; Growlers are a specialized version of the Hornet. Under a settlement, the Navy paid homeowners millions of dollars in compensation.

According to Morrissey, Admirals Cove residents sued the Navy over aircraft noise from OLF Coupeville in the 1980s. The parties came to a settlement, which Morrissey claims the Navy violated with the increase in Growlers. Details of the settlements may be key to the litigation, he said.

The lawsuit also states that the Navy and town of Coupeville came to a verbal agreement years ago that the Navy wouldn’t fly past 10 p.m., though Morrisseey admits there is no written record of it. Nowadays, the Growlers commonly fly until midnight.

In addition to the noise, the lawsuit argues that the residents are facing an unreasonable risk from aircraft crashing into their homes. The lawsuit states that the Admirals Cove neighborhood is within the “accident potential zone” of OLF Coupeville, which is the area off the end of airstrips that are at greatest risk of aircraft crashes.

If the court grants class-action status, residents within the “class area” will receive letters asking them to take part in the lawsuit.

“Our clients are patriotic people who value and respect the Navy’s mission, the important role the service members stationed at NAS Whidbey serve in fulfilling that mission and the longstanding role of the Navy in supporting the economy on the island,” Morrissey said. “But these unilateral actions that the Navy has taken through its dramatic increase in flight activities at OLF Coupeville have severe impacts on area residents, and the Navy must be held responsible for what it has done to area properties and property values.”

The lawsuit describes how the noise and vibrations from the Growlers impact each of the residents’ lives.

“With the new Growler flights flying repeatedly less than 100 feet directly over my house, the noise and house shaking is now intolerable,” said Paul Firnstahl, who is a Vietnam War veteran with a disability rating for PTSD and Agent Orange exposure.

“But I have no choice but to stay since I am on a fixed income and have nowhere to go with my high mortgage.”

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