WHIDBEY ISLAND — The majority of EA-18G Growler field carrier landing practices on Whidbey Island will occur at an airfield in rural Coupeville surrounded by farmland and homes under the preferred alternative identified by the Navy this week.
The amount of practice necessary for Growler pilots to remain prepared to land on aircraft carriers decreased by 30 percent under the scenario, but it still means a four-fold increase over current activity at Outlying Field Coupeville.
About 12,000 Growler touch-and-go passes, or 23,700 “operations,” would occur annually at Outlying Field Coupeville under the alternative, the Navy reported. An operation is defined as a takeoff or landing, so each pass accounts for two operations.
Currently, about 6,000 operations occur annually at OLF Coupeville.
Navy officials announced Monday that the preferred alternative plan for Growler practice has been identified, though the final Environmental Impact Statement on Growler activity will not be completed until later this summer or this fall. After the final EIS is released, the public will have another chance to comment during a period of at least 30 days.
The secretary of the Navy or his representative will make the final decision about force structure and training distribution. If the alternative is adopted, the transition will begin in 2019 and be completed in 2022, according to Ted Brown, Fleet Forces public affairs officer.
Growlers are variants of the F/A-18F Super Hornet equipped to conduct electronic warfare. The increase has been controversial on Whidbey Island and the North Olympic Peninsula, especially Port Townsend, because of increased noise.
“This news is not good and we are disappointed,” said Port Townsend Mayor Deborah Stinson on Tuesday.
“It greatly increases the amount of traffic in Coupeville’s Outlying Field. This impacts our neighbors on Whidbey, but it also impacts us. The noise we hear in Port Townsend is from these takeoffs and landings at this field, typically at night.
“Even though the number of cycles is the same as in 2016, they are flipping the ratio. Now 20 percent of the “touch and go” exercises will be held at Ault Field in Oak Harbor; 80 percent will be held in Coupeville.
“We were loud in our concerns and opposition,” Stinson said. “After the Navy did an assessment, they determined this decision best served the operation and the environment. We disagree.”
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she’s thankful that the Navy informed the community about the preferred alternative decision early on; she said the clarity and transparency gives the community a chance to prepare.
“It’s not a surprise but it will be very impactful,” she said of the increase in Growler practice.
Leaders of Central Whidbey groups formed in opposition to the noise from Growler practice felt that Navy officials didn’t take into account the concerns of the community.
“Clearly, the Navy has lost touch with the people that they serve,” said Maryon Attwood of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER. “Their preferred option reflects the attitude of the bully they have become — not of the sympathetic neighbor they espouse to be.”
Coupeville Community Allies said in a statement that Growler practice will have a “profound and negative effect” on the economy of Central Whidbey.
The preferred alternative establishes two new expeditionary squadrons at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and adds two aircraft to squadrons that operate off aircraft carriers. That’s an addition of 36 Growlers at NAS Whidbey; currently there are 82 of the aircraft.
With about 80 percent of the landing practice directed at OLF Coupeville, the rest will occur at NAS Whidbey’s Ault Field base on North Whidbey.
Navy officials point out that Ault Field will support four times the number of aircraft operations as compared to OLF Coupeville; there’s a lot of aircraft activity going on at Ault Field besides Growler landing practice.
The preferred alternative would bring 630 Navy personnel and 860 family members to the Island and Skagit county region, according to Lisa Padgett, environmental engineer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
NAS Whidbey spokesman Mike Welding said that the population increase will be offset by the decommissioning of VQ-1. Officials project that the base population will increase from 8,400 people to 8,600, he said.
The Navy received well over 4,000 comments from the public after the draft EIS was published.
NAS Whidbey continues to monitor noise complaints. Residents who are disturbed by the noise can call public affairs at 360-257-2286 with the exact date and time.
Jessie Stensland is editor of the Whidbey News-Times, a Sound Publishing newspaper in Oak Harbor. To reach her, email [email protected].
Jefferson County reporter/editor Jeannie McMacken contributed to this story.