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Navy proposal for increased training events at Point Loma base troubles some neighbors

A Navy helicopter passes by downtown San Diego in 2019.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Military officials are reviewing a proposal to increase the number of training events at Naval Base Point Loma, including helicopter and explosives exercises, as some community members argue that the public comment period for the environmental assessment examining the proposed increase wasn’t long enough.

The Point Loma Association received an email from the Navy about the plan on Aug. 3. The proposal and its 134-page draft environmental assessment were released at the start of a 15-day public comment period, initially slated to close Aug. 17.

PLA Chairwoman Sandy Hanshaw said she requested an extension of the comment period and the Navy expanded it to 30 days, closing Sept. 1.

“The PLA and the Navy have always worked together; they’ve always been really informative and we’ve had a great relationship, so we were caught a little off guard and kind of disappointed when they didn’t really present or provide the information for the plans to increase training activities with the community before they just dropped the 134-page document,” Hanshaw said. “There was no discussion prior to. They dropped the pages in August and offered a very small 15-day window for review.”

The Council on Environmental Quality, a presidential advisory committee on environmental policy, directs federal agencies to involve the public in the development of environmental impact analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Navy stated that 15 to 30 days is a typical comment period for assessments of this type. It said it has received at least a dozen comments about the training proposal.

But Hanshaw said some in the neighboring community feel they weren’t given enough time to examine a document of that size to respond appropriately.

“From what I’ve heard from people that are upset, the increased activity at the base is of concern [and] they are frustrated with the process, that they weren’t given a fair time or opportunity to review,” Hanshaw said.

However, she added, “I know there are supporters, and I think they trust the Navy to make the right decisions for the community.”

One resident who was disappointed in the length of the comment period is Lance Murphy, who said that if the Point Loma Association hadn’t sent out a newsletter informing people about the proposal and the extended comment period, he wouldn’t have known about the issue.

“I don’t want to stall their timeline, but they need to make more time available,” Murphy said. “Otherwise you will get lousy responses from people that are rushed and simply say ‘I don’t like it,’ which is an insufficient response. ... I have a background as an engineer and I know how to read diagrams, but I don’t feel as though I have enough of a grasp of what’s being proposed.”

According to a Navy statement to the PLA, the executive summary explains the effort and its potential effects in detail.

Each of the proposed additional training scenarios is examined in the draft environmental assessment. The report includes a “no action” alternative in which training would remain as it is now.

Under Alternative 1, the Navy would conduct additional unmanned aerial system activities in areas that have already been developed and maintained and would expand the Unmanned System Southern Testing Area to include a trail to support off-road testing. The Navy also would conduct additional beach training and increase the number of locations where it could occur, increase the number of training activities for improvised explosive devices and conduct insertion and extraction training.

In Alternative 2, the Navy would conduct all testing and training activities listed under Alternative 1 and designate up to two helicopter landing zones to support insertion and extraction activities.

“Most of the operations included in the environmental assessment are already taking place ... with no significant impact to the community,” the Navy wrote. “The proposed project increases the frequency of those training and testing. For the new naval special warfare training which will be entirely taking place inside the base, the nature of the training requires stealth, which translates to very low visibility. The proposed [helicopter] operations will only occur max three times a year and not outside normal work hours.”

Part of the assessment acknowledges potential impacts on local protected species of flora and fauna, specifically the California gnatcatcher and Orcutt’s spineflower.

Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad office, said her agency is in consultation with the Navy about the Point Loma training proposal.

“Federal agencies are required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if a project they undertake, fund or authorize may affect listed species,” Hendron said.

The assessment also examines the potential effects on civilian life of noise from the training.

Levels of approximate noise, in decibels, at several locations from explosive device training at Naval Base Point Loma.
Levels of approximate noise, in decibels, at several locations from explosive device training at Naval Base Point Loma, as presented in a draft environmental assessment.

A table in the report lists approximate noise impact by decibels in the closest residential area and other locations, including several schools, within two miles of where the events would occur. The range is from 88 decibels at the closest residential area, about a third of a mile away, to 73 at Silvergate Elementary School, two miles away.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88 decibels are slightly louder than a lawnmower or leaf blower; 73 are slightly louder than a washing machine or dishwasher.

Mark Ryan, public safety director at Point Loma Nazarene University, less than a mile away (81 decibels), said the university has been notified about explosives testing in the past about once a year and that the testing has been barely audible in classrooms or not at all. According to Communications Director Lora Fleming, the noise historically has not affected PLNU operations.

But Murphy said he is concerned about the potential for increased traffic on roads surrounding the base, citing his observations of current traffic patterns.

“Anytime they talk about increasing activity, they’re talking about increasing the flow of cars,” Murphy said. “They use two main thoroughfares” — Rosecrans Street and Catalina Boulevard. “The community has had to put in traffic control to mitigate when they unload their base. The community has installed a bunch of ‘no left turn’ signs for certain times. We’re not a secondary commuter zone.”

When asked about the concern about impacts on local traffic, the Navy said it does not anticipate traffic to increase measurably on public roads.

“Most of the increase in personnel during the proposed training events involve personnel arriving and departing by small boats from the ocean due west of Naval Base Point Loma,” the Navy wrote.

The Navy said it is reviewing public comments before making any decision on the environmental assessment. It also must complete several regulatory steps, including a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service and a Coastal Zone Management Act process with the California Coastal Commission.

The final draft of the environmental assessment will be available to the public once it is completed.

The Navy said it anticipates it will be next spring before any of the proposed training can take place.


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