Lightning Strikes Twice

Aug. 6, 2013— An Air Force proposal to lift restrictions on F-35 flight traffic from Eglin AFB, Fla., over the adjoining city of Valparaiso has sparked criticism from the city’s mayor and rekindled a debate that began some five years ago when the Air Force first considered bringing F-35s to the northwest Florida installation.

Released as part of a revised draft supplemental report on the environmental impact of operating F-35 strike fighters from Eglin, the proposal comes as the Air Force is preparing to ramp up F-35 operations there. Eglin has hosted the Defense Department’s first joint F-35 schoolhouse since 2009. F-35 pilots and maintainers train there.

The document, released in May, outlines several alternative proposals for how the schoolhouse could accommodate more students and aircraft. The preferred alternative would lift the flight restrictions over Valparaiso.

While the Air Force has emphasized that it has not yet made a decision, Bruce Arnold, Valparaiso’s mayor, is already criticizing the preferred proposal, saying noise levels from the aircraft would harm the city and its residents. “The city’s not encroaching on Eglin,” he told the Daily Report in a July 29 telephone interview. “Eglin is encroaching on the city.”

Arnold is concerned that lifting the restrictions would result in lower property values and in a significant portion of the town’s population leaving.

“The bad part of it all is it’s hard to get people excited because the noise is not here now,” he said.

Local resistance to the F-35 presence at Eglin is not new. In 2008, some Valparaiso residents expressed concern over projected F-35 noise levels over the city as the Air Force was making a decision whether to bring the schoolhouse to Eglin.

In 2009, the Air Force announced that it would go forward with plans for the schoolhouse, but would temporarily restrict flight operations over Valparaiso and would limit the number of F-35s that it would bed down at the base pending completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Shortly thereafter, Valparaiso city officials filed a lawsuit against the Air Force. At the time, Arnold claimed that noise levels from the F-35s would affect more than 90 percent of the city’s residents. The case ended in a settlement in 2010.

F-35 flight operations formally commenced at Eglin in 2012, with temporary restrictions placed on air traffic over the city.

Now, with the Air Force considering the option of lifting the restrictions, Arnold is once again speaking out. He said he and other city officials have always been supportive of the F-35. However, he’s frustrated with the Air Force’s apparent unwillingness to sit down and discuss its plans with city leaders. He described the process as a “one-way street,” in which the Air Force makes its decisions with little regard to Valparaiso’s leadership.

“The Air Force has always refused to talk,” he said. “There’s lots of room for compromise and we’ve never been able to talk to anyone who can affect any compromises.”

Conversely, Mike Spaits, Eglin’s environmental spokesman, said the Air Force has always been open with city officials. “We’ve never stopped talking to Mayor Arnold, from our top leadership down,” he said. “I think we’ve gone above and beyond in reaching out and trying to . . . include everyone outside the gates and hear their opinions,” said Spaits in an Aug. 1 telephone interview.

Spaits said Air Force officials have invited Arnold to various events at Eglin, including community leader breakfasts. He also said for several years, Eglin held a noise committee, in which residents from surrounding communities, including Valparaiso, could voice their concerns. Ultimately, said Spaits, Eglin officials decided to discontinue the committee meetings, because both base leadership and community residents agreed that there weren’t enough serious issues being discussed.

Spaits did not comment when asked about Arnold’s concern that the preferred proposal could hurt property values for Valparaiso’s homeowners. He noted, however, that only about 6 percent of F-35 sorties would use the runway that brings the aircraft over the city.

Further, both Spaits and Andy Bourland, spokesman for Eglin’s 96th Test Wing, said the Air Force has been as open as possible with the surrounding communities. In July, for example, the Air Force held a public hearing at which Valparaiso residents could air their views, which Eglin leadership would later review.

“We are well aware of concerns from several leaders from Valparaiso and we are including all of their comments and concerns as we move forward,” Bourland told the Daily Report. Despite Arnold’s criticisms, the communities around Eglin have generally been “very supportive” of the F-35’s presence, said Bourland.

The Air Force is still accepting public comments on the revised draft SEIS, said Spaits. He expects the record of decision regarding the proposal to fall sometime in early 2014.

(See revised draft SEIS; caution, exceedingly large-sized file.)