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At air station, expect 4,000 temporary jobs, noise when new jets arrive

Five new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons could bring more than 4,000 temporary construction jobs to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and create more jet noise for those living near the base, according to a Navy report released Wednesday.

The Navy released its draft environmental statement detailing how 11 operational squadrons and two training squadrons would be divided between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.

The report recommended MCAS Beaufort receive both pilot training squadrons and three active-duty squadrons. MCAS Cherry Point would receive eight active-duty squadrons. If approved, MCAS Beaufort would receive 88 jets, each of which is worth up to $90 million.

Each squadron has an expected economic impact of $30 million to $35 million, according to a report commissioned by the N.C. Eastern Regional Development Commission last month.

Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the report recommended the alternative many in the area had hoped for.

"This is what we wanted," Ungaro said. "After consulting with our military folks here and at the Pentagon, we felt like this was the best option for our community in terms of an environment and economic impact."

Without getting some portion of the 13 squadrons, the air station would be vulnerable to closure once the Marine Corps replaces all of the F-18 Hornets currently at the base with the new fighter. The jet is the first fixed-wing aircraft the Corps has purchased in more than a decade.The public has between now and July 12 to submit comments to the Navy.

The Navy is expected finalize the report in November and make its final decision on where to place the new squadrons by the end of the year. The Joint Strike Fighter is expected to arrive in Beaufort in 2014 or 2015.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT, NOISE

If the Navy's preferred alternative is followed, landings and takeoffs at MCAS Beaufort will increase. Most likely,hat will mean residents will hear jet noise more often, though it is not clear yet if the noise made by the Joint Strike Fighter will be louder than that of the F-18s currently flown at the air station.

The report said the annual number of takeoffs and landings at the air station would nearly double, from 55,000 to 99,880.

According to the report, 8,725 residents living in 2,371 homes near the base will be exposed to noise levels greater than 65 decibels.

Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, air station spokesman, said how noise from the new jet compares to the F-18 Hornet currently flown by air station pilots is difficult to predict because noise testing on the Marine Corps' variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, or the F-35B, has not been done.

The F-35A, a conventional take-off and landing version of the jet being built for the Air Force, creates between 83 decibels and 90 decibels of noise, according an Air Force environmental study released in October 2008. The same study showed that the noise created by the F-35A flying at 1,000 feet is three decibels louder than the F-18s flown by pilots at MCAS Beaufort at the same altitude.

According to Navy officials, a three decibel increase would be "barely perceptible."

McMeen said the air station receives an average of less than 20 noise complaints a year from residents.

The Joint Strike Fighterwill replace all of the F-18s flown by air station pilots, as well as the Corps' AV-8B Harriers and the EA-6B Prowlers flown at MCAS Cherry Point.

Base officials will host a public meeting June 22 at the Holiday Inn in Beaufort to answer residents' questions about the possibility of the Joint Strike Fighter coming to the air station, McMeen said.

A similar meeting is scheduled for June 24 in Lodowici, Ga., which is near Townsend Bombing Range, McMeen said.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

To prepare for the arrival the new jet, the report estimated the base would need $351.8 million in infrastructure improvements in the next five years, including a pilot-training center, new hangars and flight simulators. The base also will need to build vertical landing pads pilots will use to test the jet's vertical take-off and landing capabilities.

Expected to begin late this year or early 2011, the construction work would create nearly 4,400 temporary construction jobs over five years, the report said.

McMeen said base officials have been mulling plans to give the base a facelift for months prior to Wednesday's release of the report.

"Now that the report is out, we have more of a directed path," McMeen said. "This is what we anticipated."

The preferred alternative also would mean 294 fewer Marines stationed at the air station, though the report said those job losses probably would be offset by construction jobs, civilian contractor jobs associated with the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter and student pilots training and living in Beaufort.

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