At the end of a two-hour conversation on the F-35, headlined by two Vermont business leaders, a public interest lawyer and the retired Air Force colonel who has led the opposition to basing the aircraft in South Burlington, many of the basic facts remained in dispute.
For example, Tom Torti, Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce president, argued to about 300 people gathered in the recital hall at St. Michael’s College that F-35s will be less noisy on takeoff than the F-16s they are expected to replace. But Col. Rosanne Greco, who chairs the South Burlington City Council, cited the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared by the U.S. Air Force to show that thousands of households would experience increased noise effects that could affect property values and potentially make them “unsuitable for residential use.”
Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. President Frank Cioffi suggested that up to 1,100 jobs sustained by the presence of the Vermont National Guard would be threatened if 18 to 24 of the joint strike fighters are not based at the Burlington International Airport. However, Greco pointed out that other future missions are possible, no senior official has suggested the National Guard station will be phased out, and the arrival of F-35s may not even mean more jobs.
The fourth member of the panel, Jim Dumont, a Vermont lawyer for more than three decades, posed a series of questions to supporters of basing the planes in Vermont, including whether they believe the EIS is wrong. He asked Cioffi whether GBIC will retract a study Dumont described as “inaccurate.”
The GBIC study, released in July, says that property values surrounding the airport have held steady compared to trends across Chittenden County. At that time, Cioffi expressed confidence that housing values would not be adversely affected by F-35 noise. During the same month, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce launched a statewide petition in support of bringing the F-35 to Vermont.
Five locations are currently being considered, but Burlington’s airport is one of two “preferred alternatives.” The other is Hill Air Force Base in Utah, an Air Force command center. Modifications to the Burlington airport would cost $4.6 million, while changes at Hill are estimated at $40 million.
According to the Air Force analysis, quoted extensively by Greco on Wednesday, between 1,820 and 2,863 households could be affected by the increased noise from the aircraft. The EIS concluded that “the number of complaints received by the installation and level of annoyance experienced by underlying communities and residents would likely increase.”
Under socioeconomics, the EIS concluded that if 18 jets are bedded in Burlington there will be no impact on “regional employment, income, or the regional housing market.” However, the arrival of 24 planes might lead to 266 more military jobs.
Greco challenged the jobs assumption, citing a statement by Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, that maintenance jobs might actually be lost. Most of the 266 jobs cited in the EIS would be filled by people transferred from other bases, Greco added.
The EIS also discusses “environmental justice,” a reference to the disproportionate number of low-income and minority residents living in areas that would experience the greatest noise impacts. Seven neighborhoods and two churches, as well as the Chamberlain School and St. Michael’s College, would experience “incompatible land uses for residential purposes.”
The St. Michael’s event, which began as a debate between the four speakers and became a forum for public comments and questions in its second hour, was organized by an F-35 committee at the college. Many of the arguments reprised statements made during an Air Force public hearing in May.
Greco spent most of her first 10 minutes quoting from the EIS, concluding that its findings indicate “relocation is the only alternative” for thousands of people. She pointed specifically to the impacts of high background noise on the ability of children to learn.
Torti mentioned his past support for unions and opposition to the war in Vietnam when he was in college, but he argued that the evening’s discussion was “not a forum to question the military” or “a place for histrionics and diatribes.” On the other hand, he called the arguments of F-35 opponents “red herrings,” “not true,” and taken out of context.
“Logic and common sense tells me we live in a loud, cacophonous world,” Torti said, “a society of noise.” At full power the F-35 is less noisy than a rock concert and only slightly louder than a football game, he contended. The noise will not “hurt kids,” he promised, and “24 minutes a week of inconvenience is a small price to pay for the men and women who protect our country.” The 24-minute figure is based on an estimated six minutes of take-off noise four days a week.
Torti cited support for basing the F-35s in Burlington from the entire Vermont congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Peter Shumlin and Mayor Miro Weinberger. “Bernie (Sanders) has vetted this project. I vote with Bernie,” he said.
Dumont followed Torti with his five key questions. The first was whether the millions of dollars provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to purchase homes near the airport, primarily because of excessive noise, represent “a massive fraud.”
Homeowners are on a waiting list to sell, he noted. Displaying enlargements of various documents, Dumont also revealed a recent email exchange between airport personnel suggesting that home buyouts triggered by the arrival of F-35s could take up to 20 years.
And what will Winooski be like when all the affected homes are bought? Dumont asked. The attorney projected that 78 percent of the tiny city’s residential units could be impacted.
Cioffi delivered the last statement before the discussion opened up. “For GBIC, it’s a question of economics,” he explained, citing a series of statistics familiar to those who have followed the debate – 1,100 jobs “provided by the Air Guard,” $55 million in payroll, and $2.4 million in support of fire and safety services.
“Without the F-35, there is no apparent other mission,” he said. The presence of the plane, on the other hand,“will secure the Air Guard for 40 to 50 years.”
Like Torti, he stressed that airport noise has been significant for decades, yet has not hurt Winooski’s development or property values. “We’re talking about six minutes a day” of noise, he summed up, versus more than a thousand jobs.
During the exchanges following the formal remarks, Greco challenged Torti’s noise level comparisons and recommended that judgments should be based on research, studies and data rather than subjective perceptions. She also pointed out that the F-16 may not be phased out for as much as 20 years. In the meantime, “other possible missions” may be assigned to the Vermont National Guard.
Torti repeatedly insisted that the F-35 will produce less noise. “That’s a fact,” he declared, at one point advising hecklers in the audience to “chill out.” He also asserted that the entire congressional delegation has expressed concerns about the future of the Air Guard if the F-35 is not deployed to Vermont.
Challenged about precisely when Sens. Sanders and Patrick Leahy, along with Rep. Peter Welch have expressed this concern, Torti bristled and replied, “Call them. They’ll give you the answer.”
In a statement released Thursday, the day after the meeting, Sanders said, “I’m deeply concerned about the possible loss of many hundreds of jobs in Vermont if the current aging fleet of F-16s is phased out and not replaced here by an advanced fighter jet.
Sanders acknowledged the worries of those who would be affected by the noise.
“Along with other members of the congressional delegation,” he said, “I pledge to do all that I can to see that the Vermont National Guard works closely with its airport neighbors to mitigate noise and other environmental concerns.”
David Ross, a Vietnam-era veteran in the audience, attempted to broaden the discussion by calling the F-35 a deep penetration, first-strike weapon. “Are 1,100 jobs worth more death?” he asked.
In response, Cioffi suggested a personal preference for different military priorities, but added, “If the F-35 is included in the budget, then we want the men and women on Vermont to have the best equipment.” Several Guard members also weighed in, one suggesting that Vermont’s 158th fighter wing “deserves” the new aircraft because of its exemplary record.
Addressing F-35 opponents in the hall, Cioffi finished up by saying, “I get it. You’re concerned about the unknown.” To reassure them he expressed his trust that the Vermont Guard will be honest in working with communities and strive to“ mitigate impacts.”
In his final comment, Dumont argued that the two supporters of the F-35 had not produced “a shred of evidence that says not basing them here will affect jobs.”
Torti said he “would rather fight poverty and disease.” But he thinks how to spend federal money is a political decision beyond his control. “If the plane is going to be built, then I want our soldiers to have the best,” Torti said.
The noise produced by this and other aircraft “stinks,” he added, “but it’s been a reality for a while.”
Greco got the last word. “Plenty of other bases” would be preferable to Burlington, she argued, and “we can oppose a weapons system and still be a friend of the military.”
She reiterated that no senior military official has actually said publicly that the future of the Vermont Guard operation is in jeopardy, but she acknowledged that it could be smaller in 20 years. The number of future jobs will depend on many variables, she explained.
“The planes can go elsewhere,” Greco concluded. “People cannot.”
This story was updated on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at 9:30 p.m. with parts of statement released by Sen. Bernie Sanders reiterating his support of the Air Force housing the F-35s at the Burlington airport.