By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore Naval Air Station's Aviator Memorial stands outside the navy base's operations area.
Lemoore Naval Air Station's Aviator Memorial stands outside the navy base's operations area.
Photo By Bill Burris

I have good friends, and maybe once a week, while sipping whiskey and puffing on a medium-priced cigar in the back yard, we discuss the events of the day, maybe the latest books we’ve read, or commiserate over the San Francisco Giants.

On that last note, sadly, there hasn’t been much to discuss.

Occasionally, as our cigars grow shorter, we put our books away, and while the sun sets slowly in the west, we sometimes hear the oncoming sound of jet engines. The sound is familiar to anyone in Lemoore, especially those quiet souls in quaint backyards talking books and sharing beers. Suddenly, we look up. A sleek U.S. Navy FA-18 Hornet appears in the sky, and as the lone Navy jet passes, it interrupts the tranquility of the neighborhood with the roar of its powerful jet engines.

Around these parts, the locals call this the “sound of freedom.”

The Navy fighter, likely to have flown off aircraft carriers at remote locations across the world, is always a welcome sight in the Lemoore sky as it lumbers majestically across the city’s horizon, reminding us that we are indeed a prosperous country – and that we remain safe – thanks to the United States Navy.

On any given night, we can expect naval aviators to guide their Hornets gracefully over our heads as they head home – to nearby Naval Air Station Lemoore – ending yet another successful mission.

There was certainly nothing extraordinary about the most recent Tuesday night when at about 7:15 p.m., a Hornet flew lazily across the bright blue sky, the familiar sound of its powerful engines piercing the calm summer evening. Once again, I looked up to see that familiar grey fuselage with its twin engines. I watched it fade into the distance as thousands of navy jets have done ever since jets began flying over Lemoore skies nearly 60 years ago.

This one had a slightly different trajectory, not uncommon, but appeared to be on a flight path that included a pass over the city’s downtown, where Lemoore’s city hall sits nearby.

Ten minutes passed, and another Hornet appeared, flying slightly lower, and it too appeared headed towards the downtown area. I thought nothing of it. However, in the space of about an hour, eight flights appeared over Lemoore, all roughly on the same trajectory.

I connected the dots.

The Lemoore City Council met that night, and the evening’s agenda included the second reading of an ordinance paving the way for the construction of 362 homes west of Highway 41 near the West Hills College Lemoore Community College.

And that evening’s flights may have been the United States Navy’s way of saying “not so fast.”

The U.S. Navy has in the past opposed housing developments west of Highway 41. Sure, the world’s largest mozzarella cheese plant and a modern community college are okay, but 362 homes, west of Lemoore proper, just may threaten the U.S. Navy’s ability to train their pilots effectively, so stated a plethora of navy officials over the years. However, in 1997, when the city of Lemoore annexed the area west of Highway 198 and completed a comprehensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR),  Naval Air Station Lemoore supported the process, including planned zoning that featured a new college, businesses, and of course homes. Key navy leaders at the time liked the idea of new homes that could be utilized by U.S. Navy personnel. 

Also, as I recall, the Navy was a full partner in a Wetlands Project, created to ensure against future development west of the college. 

Because the current housing development’s final approval included a pair of ordinances, the council requires a second reading before handing developers the keys to the city – and of course, bestowing their final approval to start development. The city scheduled the second vote for the June 16 council meeting.

Typically, the second reading of an ordinance is tantamount to final approval – that is unless someone schedules an impromptu airshow directly over Lemoore City Hall.

The council’s June 2 vote to pass the ordinances, came despite testimony from Naval Air Station Base Commander Douglas Peterson, who reminded council members that building the planned housing community would foster potential encroachment and hinder the U.S. Navy’s training efforts, an argument used previously to hinder development near the local college.

Peterson wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting but instead called on Cmdr. Crist Fisher to deliver the familiar argument that navy officials fear most: Building that many homes will lead to encroachment of the navy’s mission, incompatible development, subject residents to high aircraft noise, and expose the navy’s aircrews and future residents to unnecessary health and safety risks.

A familiar argument and one delivered just two weeks before by Capt. Peterson, when council members, on June 2, rejected Peterson’s pleas and voted 4-0 to proceed with the planned West Hills College Lennar subdivision.

Fisher delivered many of the same arguments, but as council members listened, the occasional sound of FA-18 engines roared above the city hall.

And council members noticed.

Councilman Chris Schalde and his fellow council members were in a closed session when the first flight flew over city hall.

“My knee jerk reaction was that they’re (navy) trying to put an exclamation point on how much they don’t want the development out on at Bush and College,” said Schalde, a relative newcomer to city politics who was appointed earlier this year. “They don’t want the Lennar Project, and here is what it’s going to sound like at night.”

He was conflicted. “This was not a small decision,” he said. “I mean, especially with the magnitude that NAS Lemoore has and how adamantly they (navy) were opposed to it. So, I wanted to get not just with the navy, but with the Lennar people and see if there’s a chance we can build out in other directions, other than west.”

Schalde said he simply wasn’t prepared to vote Tuesday night, and neither he nor other council members provided a motion, forcing the housing project and all the work that went with it into subdivision limbo. “I’m not certain why the other council members chose not to make a motion to approve it.”

Mayor pro-tem John Plourde says he might have acted differently upon reflection. “I was kind of swaying both ways.  I could see both sides of the issue. And, when it came time to vote, I kind of looked at the other three members on the council, and I felt that they were undecided. I felt that if I made a motion, it could kind of drive them to decide one way or the other. I chose not to force them to decide until they were ready,” he said.

“I should have made the motion, but I didn’t, and I regret not making it, because after I considered everything, I think it’s in the best interest of Lemoore to have growth on the west side.”

Officials at Naval Air Station Lemoore responded in writing to The Leader’s questions regarding the authorization of the downtown flights.

“The flight that took place on the evening of 16 June in the vicinity of downtown Lemoore was a routine training flight conducted by one of our operational squadrons at NAS Lemoore,” stated the written response from navy officials. “The flight was flown in accordance with all FAA and U.S. Navy parameters and safety regulations.”

Not exactly Shakespeare, but it certainly sounds official.

The Leader encourages the Lemoore City Council to reconsider the project. The navy’s arguments regarding possible encroachment and inhibiting the navy’s training efforts are essential factors, but they should not prevent the city from expanding west of Highway 41. The chances that Lemoore’s citizens may turn against the naval air station because of noise and flyovers are slim and none.

If ever there was a time for a constructive partnership and mutual reflection, this is it. Lemoore needs to grow. It needs to build homes to attract new residents, and of course, the more people that come to Lemoore, the more our community becomes attractive to the prospective business community.

The Beatles once penned words that sum up Lemoore’s and NAS Lemoore’s ongoing relations: “We Can Work It Out.”

Somebody needs to make a move! It’s time to “Work it Out.” and “Come Together!”

Editor’s note: Before my second tenure as a newspaper editor, I was a local teacher and administrator. I also served as a member of the Lemoore City Council for 18 years, eight of those years as the town’s mayor. Between 1990 and 2008, when I stepped down, I never once experienced the sounds of navy jets flying over Lemoore City Hall.