By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen wants the Navy to rethink a proposed fourfold increase in the number of EA-18G Growler aircraft practices at a small Central Whidbey airfield.
He is also urging the Navy to work with Congress to increase Department of Defense Impact Aid for the Oak Harbor School District, fund a program to pay for sound insulation in private homes affected by aircraft noise and increase funding into noise mitigation on the aircraft.
Larsen, a Democrat from Arlington, recently sent Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer a letter outlining his concerns about the Navy’s “preferred alternative” for Growler operations at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and he made suggestions for mitigating the impact on the community.
The Navy released the final Environmental Impact Statement on Growler activities at NAS Whidbey on Sept. 28. The final decision on which of the alternatives identified in the document will be made by the Secretary of the Navy or his representative no earlier than 30 days after the final EIS is made public.
That means the final decision could be made as early as Monday.
Under the Navy’s preferred alternative, the number of Growlers will increase by 36 and the total number of field carrier landing practice operations will increase to 29,600 a year, with 80 percent occurring at OLF Coupeville and 20 percent at the Ault Field base on North Whidbey.
The number of operations is 30 percent less than it would have been if the Navy hadn’t been able to decrease the amount of training necessary by cutting the number of pilots and utilizing a technology that helps pilots land.
Central Whidbey residents and others across the area have protested against the noisy flights and the proposed increase, which many feel will have a devastating impact on their quality of life.
In his letter, Larsen noted that the preferred alternative is a reversal of the historic trend in distribution of flights between OLF Coupeville and Ault Field. He wrote that the average number of practice operations at OLF Coupeville since 1976 is 12,925 a year, or 35 a day, and the preferred alternative will mean 23,700 operations a year, which is 65 a day.
“I believe shifting some of the proposed flights to Ault Field would be consistent with past use of the complex,” he wrote, “and a demonstration of the Navy’s commitment to the people of Central Whidbey to be a good neighbor.”
In a response to an earlier letter from Larsen on the issue, Navy officials explained that management of aircraft operations at Ault Field have become much more complicated since non-tactical aircraft — the P-3C Orion — was introduced to the base in 1993.
The shifting of Growler practice to OLF Coupeville allows for more efficient operations at both airfields, the Navy said.
In addition, OLF Coupeville allows for much more realistic landing practice, while practice as Ault Field has “minimal training value,” the Navy’s letter states.
Larsen, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also asked the Navy to work with his office and the Oak Harbor School District to increase Impact Aid for building permanent classroom capacity, focusing on elementary schools.
Under the preferred alternative, an additional 628 Navy personnel are expected to bring 226 more students to the district. The district currently has 42 portable trailers that are used for classroom instruction, Larsen wrote, and more portables are not “a realistic option.”
Larsen also asked the Navy to work with Congress to start a program similar to the FAA’s noise mitigation program, which includes funding for noise insulation for homes.
Larsen urged the Navy to conduct a thorough housing market analysis around NAS Whidbey, including assessments of affordability and the Navy’s impact on sales and rental prices. The Navy completed a housing analysis last year, but officials said another would be done after the release of the final EIS.
In addition, Larsen asked the Navy to formalize a “handshake agreement” between the Navy and the community to minimize weekend flight operations. He asked for more funding to design a chevron attachment that will reduce aircraft noise and for the construction of a “hush house” at the base, which blocks noise from on-ground run-ups, the letter states.
Finally, Larsen asked the Navy to conduct “real-time noise monitoring” at points of interest in the community.
“Doing so would allow the Navy to better determine the impact on historic properties,” he wrote, “identify any discrepancies between modeled noise levels for individual flights and actual noise, and help build confidence in the community with the Navy’s methodology.”
In a statement, NAS Whidbey officials said they will continue to provide elected officials and the public with information as the plans move forward.
“We welcome questions and feedback from elected officials up to and after a Record of Decision,” the statement says, “and as always will continue to work with elected officials at the national, state and local levels to discuss and address their concerns.”
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.