Hundreds Join Lawsuit Against Navy over Jet Noise

APRIL 19, 2001

In a town that breathes Navy, they have been called unpatriotic for suing the federal government over "the sound of freedom." But the nine Virginia Beach and Chesapeake residents who filed a class-action lawsuit this month over noisy F/A-18 Hornets are gaining company.

Lawyers handling the suit said Wednesday that nearly 500 residents in neighborhoods near Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake are seeking compensation for what they claim are reduced property values. More are expected to join. The owners of nearly 20,000 homes in high-noise zones around the two Navy facilities are eligible to participate, the lawyers said.

"Eighty percent of the people I talk to in my neighborhood totally agree with it," said James Lyles, one of the plaintiffs who has lived 26 years in the Beach's Shadowlawn neighborhood just east of Oceana. "I think all of those people who consider us unpatriotic don't live in the noise zone," said plaintiff Joseph LoCasto of Chesapeake's Green Haven neighborhood west of Fentress. "They sound like they're coming through my living room," he said of the jets. Added Ronald Green of London Bridge Road in Virginia Beach: "There comes a point in time you just have to stand up."

The three plaintiffs joined a team of lawyers from four law firms, including one from Baltimore, to discuss the lawsuit at a news conference Wednesday at the Beach law offices of Shuttleworth, Ruloff, Giordano & Swain.

The residents allege that an increase in jet noise since the Navy relocated 156 Hornets from a Florida base to Oceana in summer 1998 has reduced the enjoyment and value of their property. They want the federal government to pay them for what they view as a taking without just compensation. They did not name a price. Lawyers compared the flight paths to land governments buy to build roads.

"All this is, is an air highway over people's property," said Beach lawyer Jack E. Ferrebee.

The lawsuit was filed April 5 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. Officials with the Department of Justice, which is defending the government, have declined to comment. They must file a response by June 4. Navy officials also declined to comment.

The Navy acknowledges that jet noise has increased since the F/A-18s arrived. Navy noise-zone maps show that more residents now are affected by jet noise surpassing 65 decibels -- a sound level recognized as causing negative community reaction.

Navy officials, however, said they have taken steps to reduce the noise, including altering flight paths andraising altitudes at which pilots increase throttle settings. "We're doing everything we can, but I can't affect safety or operational readiness," said Capt. William "Skip" Zobel, Oceana's commanding officer.

Beach tax records show that the assessed value of homes in most neighborhoods around Oceana has been increasing. Tax assessments for single-family homes in Shadowlawn, for instance, rose by nearly 11 percent in the past year, records show. When asked whether that undermined the lawsuit's central premise, the lawyers questioned the accuracy of the assessments and said the homes would be more valuable without the impact from jet noise.

City and federal officials worry that jet-noise complaints could jeopardize Oceana's bid to house a newer model of F/A-18, known as Super Hornets. Failing to land the jets could cast doubt on Oceana's future.

"If they win, which I don't think they will, it could," U.S. Rep. Edward L. Schrock, R-2nd District, said of the lawsuit. "But I think the operational commitments will take precedence. It makes sense to have them next to where the carriers are."

An analysis by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, presented to the Virginia Beach City Council on Tuesday, showed that closing Oceana would cause a $1 billion hit to the Beach's economy, triggering a recession. But the Beach would rebound, the analysis showed.

Lawyers said the purpose of the lawsuit is to get the federal government to compensate property owners for noise impacts, not to keep out the Super Hornets. "Realistically, the Navy is absolutely not going to change its mind about Oceana," said Kieron Quinn of the Baltimore law firm Quinn Gordon & Wolf. "And we're not asking the court to force them to."