Progressive Burlington city councilors had planned to introduce two resolutions at its next meeting, urging the U.S. Air Force to drop Burlington from its list of top three locations for the F-35.
But the president of the council, a Democrat, says the resolution had to be pulled because the city does not have liability insurance for public officials that extends to decisions about the Burlington International Airport.
City Attorney Eileen Blackwood’s opinion on whether Burlington has any authority over the Air Force’s final decision is also on hold until the city obtains the insurance.
Blackwood, and council president Joan Shannon, D-Ward-5, announced the decision Thursday. They say the city needs the coverage to protect taxpayers who could be financially liable for legal damages that could result from the council’s position on the F-35.
Shannon said the council will vote on the issue before the Air Force makes a final decision. She said the council could host a special meeting or wait until the regular meeting on Nov. 4.
Nov. 4 is also the day that marks the end of the mandatory minimum 30-day review period before the secretary of the Air Force makes a decision about whether to base the F-35 in Burlington.
The final environmental impact statement for the proposal was published in the Federal Register on Friday, and started the review period. The Vermont Air National Guard station in Burlington is in line to become a base for 18 to 25 F-35 fighter jets. The new generation of fighter jets would replace the aging F-16 aircraft. The final EIS is the last assessment of possible environmental and health impacts of F-35 jet operations at the airport on residents in the vicinty.
Blackwood, the city attorney, began examining the liability issue after councilors reacted to concerns raised by critics of the F-35. Opponents of the jet fighters say the city would be liable for legal damages incurred as a result of the jet basing in Burlington. South Burlington property owners, for example, could seek damages for the devaluation of their property as a result of increased noise levels, critics say.
Jim Dumont, a Bristol-based attorney for the Stop the F-35 Coalition, has said the potential legal damages could cost the city more than $100 million in settlements from property owners. This figure is based on an average loss in value of $33,000 per home for nearly 3,000 homes that might be affected by an expanding noise contour under scenarios one and two in the EIS.
Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said the 11th hour decision to pull the resolution on Wednesday evening was not part of a strategy to derail the basing decision.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a delay tactic,” Tracy said. “I don’t think it would necessarily benefit the pro F-35 people that much.”
The Stop the F-35 Coalition will still hold its previously scheduled rally on Monday from 6:30 to 7 p.m. at City Hall to urge the council to take a stand against the basing of the F-35 in South Burlington and to take up the resolution this month.
Councilor Rachel Siegel, P-Ward 3, said she was surprised the council did not have insurance coverage for the decision.
She said it is frustrating that the vote, which had momentum, will now be delayed. The Progressives’ resolution will not be introduced on Oct. 21 because the council has gun-control resolutions on that day’s agenda instead. Barring a special meeting, the Nov. 4 meeting would be the only alternative.
Siegel said Progressives planned to introduce a “compromise” resolution that would support Burlington as a location for the basing in a second round. This would allow the planes to be tested in less populated locations before arriving in Burlington.
“Were not saying ‘no’ to them, we’re just saying wait until the next round of basing,” Siegel said.
She said this more moderate resolution has gained broader support and has a better chance of passing. Two Democratic councilors, Tom Ayres, D-Ward 7, and Kevin Warden, D-Ward 1, and one independent, Sharon Foley Bushor, I-Ward 1, Siegel says are possible sponsors. The measure needs the support of seven councilors (out of 14) to pass.
Ayres said he may support the compromised resolution, though he would have voted against the primary resolution that opposed the F-35s outright.
If the city attorney decides that Burlington does not have the authority to stop the Air Force’s decision, Ayres said, the vote would be merely symbolic.
The question of whether Burlington has legal standing in the F-35 basing decision has yet to be confirmed by the city attorney. Critics of the F-35 have stated that Burlington, as landlord of the airport, has the authority to decide what their tenants, in this case the Air Force, can do on its property.
To date, the Burlington City Council has not stated a position on the F-35.
A year ago, the council rejected a resolution in support of the F-35 in a 9-4 vote. However, a resolution to raise questions about the draft environmental impact statement was passed with unanimous support.
This summer, the Winooski City Council voted unanimously not to support the basing of the F-35 until more questions were answered. That same week, the South Burlington City Council voted to support the basing by a vote of 3-2.