Letter From Peter Keyes to Mayor Conard

June 19, 2013

Mayor Nancy Conard Town of Coupeville

Dear Nancy –

I’d like to our express our thoughts about the continuing OLF problem, as we won’t be arriving back in Coupeville until next week, and so are unable to attend the meeting at the Rec Hall this evening.

We bought our property in Coupeville in 2004, and built our house there in 2006. We were fully aware of the practice landings at the OLF (having visited Coupeville many times before deciding to build a house), and thought we had a very good understanding of the impact of these flights. We purposefully didn’t consider a house in Admiral’s Cove or anywhere near there – the noise was too much, and the risk of a crash was too high. We knew that Coupeville wasn’t in the noise impact zone, and thought everything would continue to be fine.

For the first four or five years, everything was fine. Generally, the Prowlers flew a few nights a month, with the occasional week of more intense activity. If it was a nice evening, I’d sometimes sit on the deck and watch the runs from our house – the lights of the plane dipping below the treeline in the southeast, a distant rumble as it rose up, the lights reappearing as the plane banked to the east and circled for another pass. No problem, another little quirk of living in Coupeville, and all quiet by 10 o’clock or so.

Two years ago, this all changed. There was no announcement or discussion, there was just the perception that these flights were becoming more frequent, and more loud. At first we thought that this must be some aberration due to carriers being back in their homeports, but the realization slowly dawned on us that this was the new normal. Many different factors have combined to create this now terrible situation, and taken all together, they have made life in Coupeville pretty unbearable:

Prowlers vs. Growlers: I remember some statements that the Growlers wouldn’t be any louder. I don’t know how the Navy measures sound, but to human beings the difference was immediately discernable and huge. It’s not just the loudness, but the pitch. Prowler noise didn’t bother me the way commercial jets did, as it was a low- pitched roar. The Growlers scream, an ear-splitting whine.

Flight path: Whenever I watched the practice runs in the past, they would bank to the east over the Saratoga Passage, and whenever a Prowler flew over Coupeville, it was unusual and noticeable. Now the regular flight path is a bank to the west, either over the center of Coupeville, or maybe pulling up a little closer and flying down Crockett Prairie. Either way, they are bringing the noise right into Coupeville in a way they seldom did before.

Frequency: When it was a couple of nights per month, it wasn’t a big problem. The past few summers, it seems to be the majority of nights. I read that the number of flights has quadrupled in two years – this is extraordinary. And it used to be two or three planes flying the circuit together, so there was a little respite. Now there are often four or five together, so the noise is continuous, for hours. Even on the nights when they’re not flying, you’re on edge, waiting for them to show up and destroy your peace. Sometimes they leave, you heave a sigh of relief, and half an hour later, a new squadron arrives and begins afresh.

Lateness: The flights seldom went past 10:00 pm in the past. I remember being annoyed a few times when they went until 11:00. Now I’d be happy with that. Midnight is the norm, 1:00 am is not uncommon. Sometimes you go to sleep at a reasonable hour, and the jets show up later to wake you up. For me, that means I’m going to be up for half the night.

Ridiculous concessions: In response to this, the Navy has agreed to make its intended flight schedule known, and to work around a few critical days? This is absurd and insulting. It doesn’t help to know in advance when sleep will be impossible – we can’t decide to schedule sleep for those few quiet nights, most of us like to sleep every night. And as for working around the Town’s needs (I’m assuming the arts festival or something), it is meaningless. Who cares if it was a relatively quiet day or two, when the next night you’re back to the normal din?

Consequences: I think there are going to be serious consequences if this activity isn’t halted, for us, and for Coupeville.

Building a house in Coupeville was a huge commitment for us, and we expected it would be in our family for generations. We loved the town, the Reserve, the Cove, and we’ve made many great friends in Coupeville. We invested most of our available capital, and much labor in designing and building the house over seven years. I’ve been involved with planning in Coupeville, and have taught two architectural design studios that took on critical issues facing the Town and the Reserve We were fully committed to being here, and planned on living here at least half-time in our retirement.

But now we’re considering selling our house and leaving Coupeville for good. I just can’t imagine living with this noise for the rest of my life. I have to believe that many people are thinking the same way. Just as we wouldn’t consider living in Admiral’s Cove ten years ago, now we wouldn’t consider living in Coupeville, if we weren’t already here. No one who spends a night in Coupeville when the planes are flying would consider moving here. As disappointing as selling our house would be personally, and as disastrous financially, it might still be preferable to staying under these conditions.

I’m also worried that the consequences for Coupeville and Ebey’s Landing will be severe. I think it will be the end of much tourism, and all retirees. People come to an island for peace and quiet, now only possible in the morning (which we often miss, as we’re sleeping in late to make up for the night before). Daytrippers may visit the Reserve, but they won’t support the businesses, restaurants and lodgings. I don’t think that the horrific noise levels are widely known yet, but they will be, and after that, the impression will be impossible to change.

Here’s an example I’m sorry to relate: an old college friend contacted me, saying that she and her husband (both New York Times reporters, by the way), had decided to vacation on Whidbey instead of the San Juans, and could I recommend some places for them to stay? At the top of our list was a house at Camp Casey. It would be perfect – beautiful landscape, close to town, the Bluff, the ferry, daytrips off island – and then I remembered the jets. The chances were better than even that they’d spend their nights listening to the jets screaming across the prairie, which is not exactly what a New Yorker leaves town for. I can’t in good faith recommend that they stay anywhere near the Reserve.

I think that story will play out hundreds of times in the very near future, and tourists will go to other nearby places – Port Townsend, La Conner, Langley – that don’t have the jets. I find it heartbreaking that the most beautiful town and landscape in the whole region might be needlessly decimated. It’s more than a little ironic that the efforts of thousands of people – citizens, activists, and NPS employees – over decades, to save and improve Ebey’s Landing, might all be undone by the thoughtlessness of the military. I’m also appalled by the economic stupidity of it all. Our business and governmental leaders seem to see the increasing military presence as an unmitigated economic boon; it probably adds up to more sales for Walmart, and another housing development in Oak Harbor. Oak Harbor’s gain will be Coupeville’s loss, as businesses fail and property values decline. When I try to imagine where this will all end, I come to one conclusion: Coupeville will become a bedroom community for Oak Harbor. Civilians will leave, and will be replaced by Navy personnel, who are the only ones who seem to like the noise.

During the public hearings over the revised design guidelines for Ebey’s Landing, much concern was expressed over the right of the government to ostensibly restrict our freedom, and many of these arguments were based upon the principle of “takings.” I think the situation with the OLF is a better example of much more substantive government “takings” – of rest, peace, property values, use of property – than whether you have the right to paint your house a certain color.

I don’t think there are any minor accommodations the Navy can propose that will make any difference. I think the only hope is if the citizens and business and governmental leaders of Coupeville and Island County take a firm stand, enlist congressional support, and reverse this path we’re on. You’ve been a relentless champion for Coupeville for many years, and we’re hoping that you’ll be able to organize one more crucial effort, to preserve this Town that now seems so strangely endangered.


Peter Keyes

Coupeville, WA 98239


Senator Patty Murray

Senator Maria Cantwell

Representative Rick Larsen

Commissioner Kelly Emerson

Commissioner Jill Johnson

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson

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