By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
WHIDBEY ISLAND — Nearly 500 people crowded into Central Whidbey’s historic Crockett Barn and spilled out into the surrounding grass during a rally against military jet noise last week.
Sound Defense Alliance held three simultaneous events in protest of the Navy’s plans to bring 36 more EA-18G Growlers to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and to increase the amount of practice at the Outlying Field Coupeville by as much as 370 percent.
Organizers led a crowd of about 180 people outside in a “card stunt.”
Bob Pennington was perched high above in a cherry picker, videotaping as people — some wearing faux or real hearing protection — held up cards spelling out messages that only could be read from the sky.
“No new jets. No new flights. Do U hear us?” the cards said.
The organizers also made an animated video in which the cards flip to reveal messages as a “Growler” flies through the crowd.
“The idea is that the Growlers are dividing the community,” explained Jen Pennington, who was organizing the stunt from a ladder.
Coupeville resident Marion Attwood, chairwoman of Sound Defense Alliance, said the rally drew people from across Whidbey Island.
“It’s a huge unifying event that can’t be understated,” she said, adding that other rallies were held in Port Townsend and on Fidalgo and Lopez islands.
People attending the event said they were concerned about the sheer scale of the increase in Growler practice and how it would impact neighbors, the environment and the economy.
Nick Lyle, of Freeland, who was wearing ear protection made from plastic cups, said he sometimes hears the aircraft at his home, miles away from the airfield.
“I attempted to camp at Deception Pass and the Growlers ruined the trip,” he said.
The final environmental impact statement on the increase of Growlers at the base was released last week. It outlines the “preferred alternative” for Growler operations, which was announced in the summer.
The final decision on force structure and the distribution of practice will be made by the Secretary of the Navy or his designee no earlier than 30 days after the release of the report.
Although Coupeville residents protested the noise over the past few years, the preferred alternative places the majority of the touch-and-go operations at OLF Coupeville.
The other option for practice is the Ault Field base on North Whidbey, but Navy officials pointed out that it supports operations for other aircraft and will still have four times the number of aircraft operations a year, compared to OLF Coupeville, under the preferred alternative.
NAS Whidbey released a statement regarding the rally, pointing out that more than just Central Whidbey is affected by aircraft noise.
“Even with the proposed increase in operations at OLF Coupeville,” the statement says, “the North Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island communities will continue to experience more noise than any other area in the Puget Sound from Navy flight operations. We support every American citizen’s rights under the Constitution to express their views and opinions.
“We have and will continue to provide facts when asked and will continue to work with elected community leaders to find mitigations when practical.”
The Navy League of the United States, Oak Harbor Area Council, released a statement saying that the “EA-18G Growler squadrons deserve both the finest training and strongest community support possible,” and that Growler opposition is mostly from relative newcomers to the island.
“NASWI-based Growlers are a small and specialized community,” the news release says. “They protect our aircraft and our troops in combat, plus those of our allies. Their unique expertise and capability are unequivocally peerless, and they have saved many, many lives. Growlers are in the highest possible demand due to this protection.”
The Navy is no longer taking comments on the report, so Sound Defense Alliance is directing its message at the state’s congressional delegation, Attwood said.
More than 4,300 comments were gathered by the Navy during its process.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.