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SUN-SENTINEL, Ft. Lauderdale

Vieques Dispute Underscores Problems Installations Face In Increasingly Populated Areas

by Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

May 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Sleepy turtles and swarming mosquitoes were the only neighbors around in 1940 when military engineers began dredging swampland at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to build Naval Air Station Oceana.

In the decades since, the installation has been encircled by Virginia Beach, Va., a raucous Atlantic playground with 400,000 residents who have less and less patience with the noisy, fume- belching F-14 and F-18 warplanes operated by the defenders of American freedom. The result has been an intermittent, 20-year dispute that has forced Oceana to limit flight hours, alter flight paths and, finally, to build a $10 million "hush house" where it can test jet engines in relative quiet.

But even that is not enough: Neighbors are suing the installation and want it to move routine training to a peripheral base, limit flight practices and step up spending for noise abatement.

For the military, Oceana's predicament is depressingly typical. The Navy won a temporary victory recently when scores of protesters were evicted from its prime Atlantic live-training range at Vieques , Puerto Rico . But around the world, the armed services have been in a slow but steady retreat for decades in the way they use their installations for training and operations.

Bases that were bought in remote locations -- frequently swamps or deserts -- are now considered prime real estate and find themselves surrounded by bustling subdivisions and commercial zones. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it has become harder to persuade Americans that they need to put up with noise, pollution or even a possible threat to the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker, as necessary trade-offs for national security.

"You see this across service lines and activities," said Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman who was formerly stationed at Oceana.

The Pentagon's ownership of U.S. land has shrunk from about 30 million acres during World War II to 17 million acres today. And most U.S. installations have had to agree to some curtailment of operations to accommodate their neighbors. Many have limited flying hours or cut back the use of firing ranges.

Many bases declare parts of their property off-limits to troops to protect endangered species, historical sites or Native American burial grounds.

Overseas, the pressures are even greater. Controversy is raging in Japan, for example, over the desire of Okinawans to move Futenma Marine Air Station to another location. The Philippines booted out U.S. forces in 1992.

One after another, U.S. allies in Europe have been ordering an end to training of U.S. airmen.

During the NATO airstrikes in Kosovo, U.S. pilots of Apache helicopters needed remedial training once they reached Albania because authorities in Germany, where they were based, had banned nighttime training.

These days, Apache pilots must get their training in Poland, a new North Atlantic Treaty Organization member that is eager to solidify its ties with the American military.

Squeezed by neighbors

The encroachment of neighbors has been a key factor in the shutdown of some bases in the United States, including El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Southern California.

After the Vietnam War, the military closed many bases in the crowded Northeast and Midwest and sought to expand in the Southwest and West in hopes of escaping the pressures of encroachment. But now the pressure seems to be most intense in the West, including in California.

In the 1990s, the Pentagon shuffled and shrank Navy and Marine operations in Southern California, in part to reduce problems in fast- growing areas. But the shift of Marines from other locations to Miramar Naval Air Station ignited a huge fight with San Diego County neighbors over the noise generated by helicopter flights along Interstate Highway 15.

The Marines have been forced to make other adjustments in the area. They have given up training airspace at Camp Pendleton to commercial air traffic, lost a 29-acre obstacle course at their San Diego training center and declared part of the Twentynine Palms training ground off-limits because of the presence of the endangered desert tortoise.

In World War II, Army Gen. George S. Patton trained his tank crews to fight Adolf Hitler in the desert expanses of Ft. Irwin near Barstow.

But the Army's desire to expand the fort's National Training Center by 182 square miles has been held up by a government-mandated review to determine whether use of the acreage by tanks and helicopters would hurt the desert tortoise.

The 2.7 million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona is another installation that has come under pressure from several sides.

Though the Air Force last year won a new 25-year lease on the range, where thousands of pilots have been trained since 1941, environmental and Native American groups are still fighting to end military control of part of the range.

Environmentalists are worried about 300 species that they believe to be endangered. Air Force officials insist that they are being conscientious and say they routinely call off flights if they spot any of the endangered 150 pronghorn antelope that live on the range.

While military bases are often set up in remote locations, their presence, including the jobs and other activities they offer, tend to attract a civilian population over time.

And officials note that, though home buyers are aware that they will live near a flight path or artillery range, that does not necessarily keep them from feeling aggrieved about the noise.

Lt. Col. Bill Wheelehan, an Army spokesman, said that one of the "cruelest twists" from the military's perspective is that military retirees and active-duty personnel often become the most vigorous complainers after they move next to an artillery range or landing strip.

"They'll get on the phone right away and say, `You've got to stop all that noise,'" he said.

The Vieques training range, which the Navy may lose after an upcoming vote of island residents, has become a painful reminder to the military of how important it is to cultivate good relations with the community.

Puerto Rican activists contend that the Navy did not follow through on promises to help develop the economy of the island, which is off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico . And they contend that the Navy neglected environmental cleanup.

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