Hundreds gather, speak minds at Port Townsend open house for proposed Growler jet additions
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Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
Laurence Cole, with back to camera, leads a group of singing protesters through a scoping meeting on Growler aircraft Thursday night.
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Cali Bagby/Islands’ Weekly
A sign outside the Navy’s open house on Lopez Island last week refers to quiet skies.

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — An open house focusing on a proposal to add up to 36 Growler jets to the 82 currently based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was heavily attended, with many expressing opposition to both the project and its presentation.

According to Navy spokesman Ted Brown, 377 people were counted entering the open house at Fort Worden Commons on Thursday.

The Navy had set up stations where people could ask questions about different aspects of the proposal to expand the number of EA-18G Growlers at NAS Whidbey Island.

The proposal to add aircraft is “to support an expanded Department of Defense mission for identifying, tracking and targeting in a complex electronic warfare environment,” according to the description of the proposed action on the Navy website at www.whidbeyeis.com.

Navy officials did not respond to questions about electronic warfare because a proposal for a range on the West End is not part of the Growler project, Brown said.

“The Growlers already train in that area and would continue,” he said by text Saturday.

Growler pilots practice landing in short runway techniques used for aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings.

The sound carries across Admiralty Inlet to Port Townsend and other areas on the North Olympic Peninsula, residents say.

Brown said 145 submitted written comments and 20 were dictated to a stenographer.

Not counted by the Navy were about 40 protesters who posted signs, wore costumes and put on an impromptu choral performance that at one point invaded the meeting space.

“This is just a dog-and-pony show,” said Paula Spina of Whidbey Island.

“The Navy is just taking steps to justify a decision it has already made.”

Added Kit Kittredge of Quilcene: “We should have a forum where people who are in support of the project are in front of the public asking specific questions” with separate panels of those for and against.

Brown said there will be no public hearings about the project and that the open house format is a more effective tool for both the public and the Navy.

“This is a much better way to exchange information,” he said.

“To have the subject experts on hand on a one-on-one basis is a more effective way to get their questions answered, rather than allowing people to speak for three minutes.”

The meeting was the first held on the proposal on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Opposition was not universal. Several people said they attended to learn about the project.

“I am holding my opinion in abeyance until I have more information,” said John Collins, former Port of Port Townsend commissioner.

Said Bob Sokol of Port Townsend, also a former port commissioner: “If the president decides to send us to war, we need to have qualified personnel, and one of the ways to do that is to train.

“It's unfortunate that airplanes make noise, but the noise doesn't bother me in the least,” he added.

“I am more disturbed by the noise made by a leaf blower that is made in China, which is far noisier than any airplane built in the United States.”

One of those seeking more information was Port Townsend Mayor David King, who said his questions were not adequately answered.

“I'm still not sure why it seems to be so much noisier this year than in previous years,” King said.

“Everyone I've talked to who lives in the flight path” has mentioned the noise, he said, “but the Navy said they aren't doing anything different.

“But it is way noisier this year.”

Many had questions, which the Navy officials did not address, about the proposed electronic warfare range that calls for using electronic emitters to help train aviators from NAS Whidbey Island.

Joe Breskin of Port Townsend, for instance, said the Growlers and electronic warfare proposal “were all part of the big picture.”

The Navy is seeking a special-use permit from the National Forest Service to allow access to 15 logging-road sites in Olympic National Forest on which three camper-sized Navy vehicles would be dispersed.

A fourth emitter would be at a fixed site at the Navy base at Pacific Beach.

The trucks, equipped with antennas mounted 14 feet off the ground, would emit electromagnetic radiation as part of simulated targeting exercises performed by NAS Whidbey Island pilots trying to locate the emitters' electronic signatures.

Aside from Navy and Fort Worden State Park personnel, two uniformed security guards hired from Security Services Northwest were present, something that offended Kees Kolff, a former Port Townsend mayor.

“At an event like this, in a town like this, having private security guards creates an atmosphere of fear,” Kolff said.

Brown said it was standard procedure at such meetings.

“Whenever there are a lot of people discussing a controversial issue, it's prudent to have some security as a deterrent because it facilitates an open exchange of ideas,” he said.

“Our goal is to have an exchange of information in a respectful manner,” he added. “Having security present tends to foster that kind of environment.”

It was not the two guards but rather Brian Hageman, interim park manager, who confronted protesters.

About 30 people began singing in the lobby.

Hageman asked them to quiet down and move, saying that gatherings on state park land were legal but required a permit.

The singers lowered their volume for several minutes but then began to march into the meeting room.

“You are in violation of the public assembly act,” Hageman told Laurence Cole, the group's leader.

“I don't want to have to enforce this, so could you please help me out and go back into the hall?”

Cole and the group complied with Hageman's request.

The public comment period for an environmental impact study of the Growler proposal ends Jan. 9.

Information can be found at www.whidbeyeis.com. Comments can be submitted there or to the EA-18G EIS Project Manager, Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Atlantic, Attn: Code EV21/SS, 6506 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, VA 23508.

Comments on the electronic warfare range closed Nov. 28. However, the Forest Service site at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-Electrowarfare says “comments, including anonymous comments, will be accepted at any time” but that “comments posted after the close of a designated comment period may not be able to be given full consideration.”

Comments can be submitted to Gregory Wahl, Olympic National Forest All Units, 437 Tillicum Lane, Forks, WA 98331, or emailed to gtwahl@fs.fed.us.

Dean Millett, Pacific District ranger, said he will decide on the permit by mid-2015 or later in the year.

________

Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Managing Editor/News Leah Leach contributed to this report.

Last modified: December 06. 2014 11:04PM
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