Concerns about national security are on a midair collision course with the public's right to peace and quiet in a southern community that calls itself "the hog basket of the world."
The place is Clinton, in south-central North Carolina, where hog and turkey farmers live in not-so-peaceful coexistence with the U.S. Air Force.
The residents of Clinton normally might be expected to support the U.S. military, particularly because the region is home to neighboring Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg. But when the Air Force announced late last year that it was going to send fighter-bombers and other jets from Seymour Johnson on low-level sorties over the town, that was too much for local residents.
"They want to take in more and more of Sampson County for their low-flying jets," said Clinton Mayor Aaron Kennedy Jr., who also chairs the joint city-county airport authority. "We feel they are taking too much of Sampson County."
The problem is the community's self-described status as the nation's leading producer of pigs and poultry. "According to what we could find out," Kennedy said, "the noise could stampede turkeys and cause them to kill themselves. Hogs could run and pile up and smother themselves."
Kennedy said he will fight the proposal before the Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve any change that would further restrict Sampson County's airspace for military use. The plan's opponents have enlisted the aid of the area's congressman, Democratic Rep. Charles O. Whitley.
The case of Clinton versus the Air Force is not the service's first such battle with a community over low-flying jets -- and it is not likely to be the last. Involved are complicated issues of property rights, military prerogative and environmental impact.
The Air Force, which is required to submit an environmental impact statement to North Carolina officials in the Clinton case, has studied the impact of jet noise on animals in other places, including mink in Alaska. Master Sgt. Benjamin Atkins, a spokesman at Seymour Johnson, said that according to the studies, any noise impact on animals is "very little. It could scare some chickens, but normally it doesn't affect them."
He added, "We now fly over horses, and they don't even bother to look up."
Some farmers agree, revealing a split in the community over the issue. At Murphy Farms in Rose Hill near Clinton, pig farmer Holmes Murphy said in a telephone interview, "I don't think anything will happen. We have plenty of planes over here now. It don't bother 'em a bit in the world." Murphy should know -- he owns 200,000 pigs.
The issue itself is as muddied as a pigpen. Citizens have been allowed to sue the government and collect damages since the Supreme Court decided in 1946 that "if a landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere."
But when six Georgia residents sued the government in 1983 to stop F15 jets from swooping over their subdivision, a federal judge dismissed the case. The reason: The flights were not "sufficiently frequent or sufficiently noisy."
But Clinton Mayor Kennedy insists he'll fight to the last hog. "We're not against the Air Force and what they're trying to do," he said, "but we have to protect the local population here too."