Originally created 02/16/02

Residents say Navy plan threatens county



GIRARD, Ga. - Randy Dixon has invested a lifetime farming the sandy, rolling terrain that hugs the Savannah River in one of Georgia's remotest areas.

"We raise Black Angus, grow peanuts - lots of cotton, too," he said. "I been out here all my life, and so had my daddy, and his daddy, too."

The solitude of the oak-studded forests and dark river swamp is part of the appeal that led four generations of Dixons - and other families nearby - to cling to their rural past.

Soon, however, changes could be streaking across the horizon - at nearly twice the speed of sound.

The Navy is eyeing 2,000 to 3,000 acres - with plans to acquire easements to an additional 53,000 acres - for a practice field for its new F/A-18 Super Hornet attack aircraft.

Burke County, and in particular the remote area around the Dixon farms, is one of seven locations under scrutiny for a $35 million to $40 million airfield, where pilots would practice takeoffs and landings - for the most part at night.

"It's not a base, but an outlying landing field," said Lt. Joe Carpenter, a Navy spokesman. "It would have the runway and support buildings such as air traffic control tower, firefighting, refueling and security."

The airfield itself would require 2,000 to 3,000 acres, and the remaining buffer would be acquired outright or covered with restrictive easements, he said.

The seven sites were short-listed from 20 original sites. Six others are in North Carolina near Windsor, Morehead City, Vanceboro, Englehard, Elizabeth City and Plymouth.

Lt. Carpenter said the final decision, expected late this year after environmental studies are completed, will depend partly on where the Navy opts to base its new attack aircraft.

Potential bases include naval air stations in Oceana, Va., and Meridian, Miss.; and Marine Corps air stations in Cherry Point, N.C., and Beaufort, S.C.

Selection of any but the Beaufort Marine base would make the Burke County project unlikely.

The Meridian station already has a viable site for an outlying landing field, so it is not included in the study, Navy officials said.

The environmental study takes into account factors ranging from plant and animal impacts to the effect of noise exposure to the F-18's engines, which produce 44,000 pounds of thrust.

Ironically for farmers such as Mr. Dixon, Burke County was selected as a possible site for the same reasons his family enjoys living there.

"One of the big criteria for selecting sites is low population density, defined as less than 50 people per square mile," Lt. Carpenter said.

Congressman Charlie Norwood, whose district includes Burke County, has gotten both positive and negative feedback, said John Stone, his press secretary.

"We've spoken with the commander in charge about the basic details," he said. "We honestly don't know where it will be. Some people think it's a good thing - and it would bring in 50 jobs."

The draft environmental studies will be complete this spring, possibly in March. Authorities will decide later how to arrange opportunities for additional public comment and possibly public hearings or briefings, Lt. Carpenter said.

The Burke County area that is under scrutiny is home to about 70 families totaling several hundred people.

Many families live near the airfield site, which lies just north of Wade Plantation, a corporate farm owned by a subsidiary of Morris Communications Co., the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.

For Mr. Dixon and his neighbors, the thought of noisy jets coming and going isn't a pleasant one.

"It would change everything," he said. "The land they're wanting to take is where we live and work. We live in the country because we chose to."

Both Mr. Dixon and Mr. Stone made the observation that the federal government already owns ample land for any sort of military facility, at Savannah River Site just across the river.

"If it does have to come into this vicinity, the old bomb plant is straight across the river," Mr. Dixon said. "Why can't they use land they already took from people years ago? It's just growing up in trees."

"It would change everything. The land they're wanting to take is where we live and work. We live in the country because we chose to." - Randy Dixon, Burke County farmer