By The Herald Editorial Board
It may be simple to walk away from an agreement when there is no agreement, but a decision by the Navy to abandon talks regarding its Growler jets at Naval Air Station Whidbey means a poor outcome for Whidbey Island residents and those who visit Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and other nearby state parks on the island.
Nor does it serve the long-term interests of the Navy itself.
Military officials announced late last month that the U.S. Navy was walking away from discussions with federal, state and local stakeholders regarding how to address the impacts that will result from a planned increase of the number and flight operations of EA-18G Growler jets in squadrons based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
A final announcement from the Navy is now expected in January regarding its plans to add up to 36 Growlers — which are used to jam communications and missile launch systems — to the squadrons of 82 jets currently based near Oak Harbor and significantly increase flight operations at a field near Coupeville and the 17,000-acre historic district that includes Ebey’s Landing, part of the National Park Service.
The Navy announced late Nov. 30 that it was ending its talks with federal and state agencies and local groups regarding how to mitigate the negative impacts of the addition of jets and the increase of flight operations, specifically at a carrier landing training airfield — Outlying Field Coupeville — where the Navy says touch-and-go landings will jump significantly as early as next year.
The Coupeville field, southeast of Coupeville and north of the Keystone ferry landing, has long been used by the Navy for Growler since those jets replaced the Prowlers, but total flight operations there have numbered a little more than 5,000 a year in recent years. Under the proposal, the Navy plans to increase operations at the Coupeville field about four-fold to as many as 24,000 a year, an average of about 65 a day. Use of Ault Field at the Naval Air Station would actually decrease.
Because of those impacts, the Navy was obligated to enter into discussions, a requirement of the National Historic Preservation Act. But it wasn’t obligated to reach an agreement with the others involved. The state initially asked the Navy to commit up to $8 million in projects that would have supported direct noise monitoring and soundproofing and stabilization of historic structures in the district; others sought a reduction in the planned increase in operations at the Coupeville field.
The Navy has reportedly offered about $1 million, but objected to proposals that it said were outside of its obligations to mitigate impacts in the historic district.
The Navy’s walk-out and the limited mitigation it offered were coolly received.
The state’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, wrote in a letter to NAS Whidbey’s commanding officer that she would not sign on to the memorandum of agreement because the state and local community believe the mitigations offered were not adequate.
“It is most unfortunate that the efforts of our department, the Ebey’s Historical Reserve Trust Board, and the local community, all of whom offered other more proportional mitigation proposals, were summarily rejected by the U.S. Navy,” Brooks said in the letter.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, long a supporter of the Navy bases in his district, said in an email to The Herald he was disappointed the Navy and others were unable to reach an agreement and pledged to work to find a solution.
Earlier in November, Larsen wrote Secretary of Navy Richard Spencer, noting that in a briefing to Congress on the Navy’s preferred alternative for NAS Whidbey’s Growlers, the Navy appeared to suggest it was seeking an increase “consistent with past level of airfield operations.” Larsen asked that the Navy address the discrepancy between that statement and the planned four-fold increase at the Coupeville field.
Absent a lawsuit, there’s not much requiring the Navy to do more to address the adverse effects of increased flight operations, particularly near Coupeville and the Ebey’s Landing district. But there’s little lost in returning to talks with those affected and working toward a solution that addresses most concerns.
As it does in Everett, the Navy has relationships — and a significant taxpayer investment — on Whidbey Island that it will want to continue to foster.
The Navy has for decades begged pardon for the noise from its jets, excusing their roar as “the sound of freedom.” But the Navy’s defense mission — as important as that is to the nation’s security and the training and safety of Navy sailors and aviators — doesn’t excuse it from its responsibilities to act as a good neighbor toward the communities that are its hosts.