Navy project threatens farm land

From the cab of his corn picker, Jerry Beasley has an idea what fighter pilots must feel like as they approach the runway of an aircraft carrier deck.

Ironically, that's exactly what the U.S. Navy saw when it picked a 30,000 acre plot here in Beaufort and Washington counties, N.C., for its Outlying Landing Field between Cherry Point, N.C., and Norfolk, Va. And that's what hundreds of thousands of birds see as a winter resting place when they spot the Blacklands of North Carolina.

It's an irony Beasley had just as soon not consider. He faces losing his farmland to the project.

Opponents say the Navy's proposal would take prime farmland and destroy a way of life in eastern North Carolina.

Residents, environmental groups and farmers in this area of eastern North Carolina are continuing to battle against the proposal, citing its proximity to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the problem thousands of swan, geese and other waterfowl will pose for Navy jets. Groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club are fighting the proposed landing field. Experts in aviation hazards point out the large numbers of birds that inhabit the area 50 percent of the year.

The Navy has plans to obtain 30,000 acres for the $186.5 million project. A core area includes 2,000 acres where an 8,000-foot runway would be built near the Beaufort and Washington county line. More than 30,000 flights would take place each year. Five other sites were studied. The plan is waiting on funding from the Congress and the process of building could begin next year.

Residents have demonstrated against the project, talked with state and national elected representatives, written letters and held public meetings. They plan to continue the fight.

For Jerry Beasley, the fight has resembled an emotional roller coaster this season. “Most likely, this will put me out of business if the Navy builds the OLF,” he says from the cab of his corn picker in mid-September.

At first, farmers in the area heard that the Navy was requesting easements on the land, Beasley says. The Department of the Navy began surveying over the winter last year. In an environmental impact study released on July 18 the Navy named the 30,000 acres as its preferred site. Residents say the study had errors.

If the project goes through, many farmers like Beasley would have to sell their land. The Navy has said it would lease back the land to farmers. “I had rather come and see them plant it in trees than to ride by where I once owned the land and see another man farming.”

For Beasley, the opportunity to lease back the land is little consolation. “I don't want to sell at any price,” he says. “If they would give me $3,000 an acre, I wouldn't want to sell. I farm 700 acres and all but 30 acres is paid for. This is my livelihood. If I wanted to sell my land, there would be no hard feelings.”

Some 74 families will have to move for the OLF to be built.

Beasley also hauls fertilizer, grain and cabbage in addition to farming row crops. “It will affect that, too.”

Beasley lists mayors, county commissions in both Beaufort and Washington, and U.S. representatives and senators, and the state's governor as being on record against the OLF. He estimates that more than $200,000 will be taken off the tax base in Washington County. “Everybody's property value is going to go down.” He cites the noise level as the primary reason.

“It's not the American way,” Beasley says of the Navy's plan to take the land. He says by and large the landowners in the 2,000-acre core area are “absentee.

“People have been told they're going to get big money,” Beasley says.

Opposition against the OLF has been mobilized for the better part of the year, but publicity has largely been limited to the Carolinas; opponents were excited at the possibility of NBC's Today Show airing a feature on the issue, but it didn't materialize. “People say it can't happen here, but when it does, it's a different story,” Beasley says.

Like many of the farmers in the area opposed to the Navy's plan, Beasley isn't ready to give up. “I haven't even thought about having to move. I'll make that decision when I have to.”

An approaching hurricane postponed a planned caravan to Raleigh to protest the OLF, but Beasley and others vow to continue the fight. Opponents held a press conference in Raleigh in mid-October.

“Once you have done all you can do and it still comes in, you'll feel better knowing that at least you gave it a good shot to stop it,” Beasley says.

Riding through the field with Hurricane Isabel approaching, Beasley recounts the possibility of losing his land. “It makes you want to cry,” he says. “If the Navy had come out and talked up front with us, it would have made it a whole lot better.”

It's not lost on Beasley that 2003 may be his last year of harvesting crops in these fields. He's picking a dismal-looking corn crop three miles from the main road.

“Last year was dry and this year we have had an excessive amount of rain,” Beasley says.

Earlier in the summer, Beasley was riding with his small son to a demonstration in Roper. “Halfway there, I started to cry,” Beasley remembers. “My little boy asked me, “What's wrong?' I said, ‘Nothing.’

“But I think about it 24 hours a day,” Beasley says.

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