Battle to Save Otis Loses Key Round in Federal Court

By JAMES KINSELLA

The fight to keep Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod open took another hit yesterday, when a federal judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order to keep the base from closing.

The ruling by the Hon. George A. O'Toole Jr., a federal district court judge in Boston, adds another element of uncertainty to what will become of the Coast Guard air/sea and air medical evacuation operations based at Otis. Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod has shared the Massachusetts Military Reservation airfield since the late 1970s.

The Vineyard, Nantucket and Gosnold all depend on the Coast Guard to provide rescues and medical evacuations in difficult weather conditions that prevent the operation of commercial medical evacuation flights.

An independent federal commission yesterday had been scheduled to submit its plan for closing and realigning American military bases to President George Bush. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked yesterday to stop the recommendations from being sent to the president.

The panel recommends that the 18 F-15 fighters at Otis be shifted to Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, and that Otis be closed by 2008.

Gov. Mitt Romney and Attorney General Thomas Reilly requested the restraining order on the grounds that Governor Romney's approval is required before a National Guard base or unit can be changed.

In his ruling yesterday, Judge O'Toole said the state had not met the legal requirements for a temporary restraining order because it had not shown Massachusetts would suffer immediate irreparable harm if the order was not granted. The judge said Governor Romney and Attorney General Reilly also had failed to show that their case could succeed on its merits.

Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Reilly yesterday pledged to continue to battle to keep Otis open.

The governor told reporters that the state "will take every possible course we can to preserve Otis.''

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Reilly said: "While I'm disappointed the court didn't issue a temporary restraining order preventing Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) from moving forward with its recommendation to close Otis Air National Guard base and move the A-10s from Barnes Air National Guard base, I'm heartened the court acknowledged the case presented novel and intriguing issues." He also said:

"Today's ruling merely says this case will be ripe only after President Bush makes a final ruling on base closures. In the coming days, I'll be discussing our legal options with Governor Romney and our congressional delegation. Working together, we'll decide the best course to take."

It is unclear whether the Coast Guard can afford to operate its Cape air station without the large in-kind contributions of the Otis base. A Coast Guard review concluded it would cost an additional $17 million every year to run the airfield alone - money the Coast Guard does not have.

Medical, emergency and town officials on the Vineyard, Gosnold and Nantucket are concerned about any potential loss of emergency Coast Guard service.

According to the Coast Guard, the Vineyard hospital last year called for 375 air evacuations. Almost 10 per cent of those transports - 34 cases - were handled by the Coast Guard, which has evacuated increasing numbers of people from the Island every year since 2000.