Column: Judge halts OLF in eastern North Carolina

If you think a group of citizens and farmers can’t win in a court battle with the federal government, consider the long odyssey involving a project known simply by its call letters: OLF.

The acronym refers to the Navy’s proposed Outlying Landing Field in the Blacklands of North Carolina.

The plan called for 30,000 acres near Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to serve as a landing field for fighter jets to practice aircraft carrier landings. In their opposition, environmentalists and farmers, some whose ancestors tilled the soil here before the Revolutionary War, cited concerns about the project.

In anticipation of building the landing field, the Navy began buying up land near the core of the project more than a year ago.

Even before then, environmental groups, residents of the area and farmers had mounted considerable opposition to the project, saying that the Navy didn’t consider the environmental impact of the plan. A federal judge halted that action while considering the case.

In mid-February, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle forbade the Navy from continuing its work on the OLF, ruling that the military violated environmental law in picking the site. The judge said the Navy’s decision on the site in eastern North Carolina appeared “foreordained as a political decision to appease the communities around Oceana and the Naval Auxiliary Landing Fentress” in Virginia.

In making the ruling, Boyle cited a “clear error of judgment” in a 27-page decision. It said the Navy “acted capriciously and arbitrarily in determining that the impact of an OLF will be minimal. The Navy has chosen to introduce a dramatic alteration to the environment…without complying with the law. The contractors overseeing the evaluation on wildlife…did little more than drive around the area for several hours.”

In a more down-to-earth way, farmer Jerry Beasley expressed those same thoughts through tears as I visited him on his Blacklands farm.

I rode with Beasley on his combine while he was picking corn. For all intents and purposes, he anticipated that it would be his last year farming the land. He recalled how the emotion of giving up the land to what he considered an un-American way of taking the land would overcome him while he was driving down the road.

On one trip to town, his son caught him crying. “What are you crying about, Daddy?” his son asked him. “I had to tell him, ‘nothing.’”

Farmers in the area regard the judge’s ruling with cautious optimism. Right now, they’re rejoicing. Lawyers representing environmental groups, as well as the congressman who represents the area, are calling on the Navy to pick an alternative site.

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