Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William Boardman of Woodstock. He produced “The Panther Program” on VPR for over a decade and served 20 years as a Windsor County side judge.
Public opposition to basing the F-35 first strike bomber in Burlington is intensifying on three fronts: legal, political, and public health.
With the Air Force’s final decision probably little more than a month away, the Stop the F-35 coalition has signed up dozens of people as co-plaintiffs in current and future legal actions, including a potential multi-million-dollar liability suit against the City of Burlington as the landlord of the Burlington International Airport. One estimate projects that housing made unsuitable for residential use could cost the city as much as $171 million if the city was to be held liable.
The Air Force’s environmental impact statement last spring estimates that at least 1,366 homes would be rendered unsuitable for residential use, while others say the impact will reach more than twice as many.
The first reaction of city attorney Eileen Blackwood was that she “was not aware of any basis on which the city would be liable.” Meanwhile, she is compiling documents to fulfill the coalition’s attorney’s first action, a public records request that will add details of the relationship between the city and the airport. The request is intended to put the city on notice that it “can be held liable for damages to health, hearing, home value, and nuisance to thousands of homeowners and renters caused by the noise its tenant at the airport – the Air Force – generates,” says a letter from the coalition.
The coalition’s attorney, James Dumont of Bristol, has extensive experience in environmental law and taught Environmental Litigation at Vermont Law School for many years. He sent the public records request to the city on Sept. 13. He is also laying the groundwork for possible challenges to the F-35 base through the local permit process, including Act 250, the Vermont environmental law, as well as through local zoning ordinances and the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law.
In an email inviting people to join the legal action, the Stop the F-35 Coalition outlined its reasoning: “We view the legal challenges as one of the ways to demonstrate broad public opposition to basing the F-35 in the most densely populated part of Vermont. We want hundreds of people to participate. That is why we are making participation in these legal actions as easy as possible. The key is large numbers of people, and if large numbers participate, we will make an impact on the thinking of city officials, our Governor, our Congressional delegation, and the Air Force.”
To further public involvement in the discussion, the coalition has been leafleting in the region to draw as large a crowd as possible to a Community Meeting on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Chamberlain School in South Burlington.
While both Vermont’s senators, the state’s only congressman, the governor, and the mayor of Burlington have all expressed support for basing the nuclear-capable F-35 in Vermont, several have done so somewhat provisionally. While they generally indicate something about jobs being good, none of them has offered a cogent and detailed argument that demonstrates that the F-35 has a coherent mission or that it serves the overall public good.
In August the Vermont Chamber of Commerce announced that it had initiated a petition in support of the F-35 base. In response to a recent inquiry, a chamber spokesperson said there was nothing further to report on this.
To further public involvement in the discussion, the coalition has been leafleting in the region to draw as large a crowd as possible to a Community Meeting on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Chamberlain School in South Burlington. South Burlington is the only local government, under the leadership of a former Pentagon planner, to take a clear position in opposition to an F-35 base. Other affected local governments have equivocated, but none has expressed support.
The following day, Oct. 11, at Burlington City Hall, the city’s Board of Health will take public comment relating to health concerns about having an F-35 base at the airport.
The F-35, perhaps the world’s most expensive weapons system, is already more than a decade behind schedule and more than 100 percent over budget, but still has no deployment date. More than two years ago, the Air Force announced plans to replace its F-16 fleet with F-35s, possibly basing some in Burlington. The troubled trillion-dollar program may have a test version of the plane available in November.
More than 4,500 F-16s have been built for air forces around the world. The U.S. Air Force has some 2,200 F-16s, the last one coming off the assembly line in March 2005. The Air Force Times recently reported that, to “fill any gaps that might arise with the F-35 program,” the Air Force now plans to keep the F-16 in service another 18 years or more, past 2030.
Not that troubles with the F-35 are a new development. When the Air Force took its last F-16, affectionately called the “viper,” there were already problems with its presumed replacement, as one serviceman posted in the F-16.net forum in March 2005: “What a great example of fixing what isn’t broken. Here we have a cost-effective [F-16] jet with a fantastic service record. But now we need the F-22 or F-35, more expensive, more ‘stealthy’ more technologically advanced etc. etc. What it means is more $$ in contracts for Lockheed, more $$ in training for US pilots, and more wasted dollars as the viper is put to pasture. IMHO the money should just be spent on upgrading the viper. I mean, stealth is becoming obsolete very quickly with advances in radar technology anyway. The saved money could also be put towards keeping bases open and people working instead of wasted on R&D. Maybe I just love the viper, or maybe it makes too much sense for the gov’t to see.”