COLCHESTER — After an often-contentious three-year process, the U.S. Air Force has selected Burlington as a base for the F-35 fighter jet.
Maj. Gen. Steven A. Cray, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, made the announcement Tuesday at the 158th Fighter Wing at Camp Johnson in Colchester.
“This is a milestone event for the Air Force and its the next step in securing the citizens of the United States,” Cray told a crowd of reporters and members of the Guard.
Timothy Bridges, deputy secretary of the Air Force for Installations, signed the record of decision choosing the Vermont Air National Guard as the location to receive a fleet of F-35A Lightning IIs to replace its aging F-16 jets. The first F-35As are scheduled to arrive in 2020, Guard officials said.
The base will receive 18 F-35As, which will replace the 18 F-16 Fighting Falcons currently assigned to Burlington. The Falcon is the oldest version of the F-16 aircraft and will be retired, Guard officials said.
The Air Force also announced Tuesday that Hill Air Force Base in Utah was chosen as the operational location for the F-35A and will begin receiving the jets in 2015.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger — all supporters of the F-35 — joined the Guard to make the announcement. Pam Mackenzie, chair of the South Burlington City Council, and Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien were also present.
Leahy, Shumlin, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., issued the following statement:
“The Air Force decision to base its newest generation of planes in Burlington is a tribute to the Vermont Air National Guard, which is the finest in the nation. It reflects the Guard’s dedication to its mission and long record of outstanding performance. The Air Force has made clear that this aircraft, which will anchor our national air defenses, is the Air Force’s future. Now the men and women of Vermont’s Air National Guard have been chosen for a vital role in that future. The decision ensures the Vermont Air Guard’s continuing mission and protects hundreds of jobs and educational opportunities for Vermonters while securing its significant contribution to the local economy. We appreciate the Guard’s commitment to continue working with its airport neighbors to address legitimate concerns about noise and other environmental concerns.”
Leahy, who co-chairs of the Senate’s National Guard Caucus, said the Secretary of the Air Force called him Tuesday morning to say the Vermont Air Guard was selected because of its “superb” national reputation.
“You earned it,” he said.
Leahy said he has received up 12,000 letters supporting the basing at Burlington International Airport, calling it the “largest grass roots effort” of his tenure. During a news conference after the announcement, he said noise will be mitigated.
“I’ve talk to Gen. Cray and I’ve talked to the others here. They will do everything possible to mitigate noise,” he said. “But this is an airport.”
The record of decision calls for a noise study, but not until all of the 18 F-35As are deployed, a process that will not begin before 2020.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott also praised the basing.
“This is a decision that many Vermonters, myself included, have been advocating for since it was first contemplated,” Scott said in a statement. “It creates jobs. It bolsters the local economy. Most importantly, it keeps Americans safe. I am also thankful that the Guard is committed to working with airport neighbors to address noise and environmental concerns.”
Weinberger said the decision will continue the Guard’s “deep” relationship with the greater Burlington community, keep the 1,100 jobs in the area and secure the fire and rescue services that the Guard offers to the area.
However, Weinberger acknowledged that not everyone in the community supported the basing and said work needs to be done before the plane arrives. He cited, for example, planning for noise mitigation programs for the residential neighborhood surrounding the airport already dotted with vacant homes bought by the Federal Aviation Administration during prior expansions of the Burlington International Airport.
“As we move forward and we prepare for the arrival of the planes, I think that it is important that we do remember that during these long months, there has … has been, has been contention, there has been controversy, and that not everybody will welcome today’s announcement,” he said.
After the announcement, Weinberger said work is needed to ensure that the airport is a good neighbor with the surrounding communities.
“There has been disruption as a result of the FAA purchases,” he said. “There needs to be a solid planning process.”
The record of decision issued by the Air Force recognized possible negative impacts of the jet on the Burlington area.
“Certain F-35A beddown activities are projected to result in disturbance and/or noise within areas not previously or recently subjected to these effects. Some of the noise effect could be considered adverse or annoying to potentially affected individuals,” the record of decision states.
Weeks before the Air Force issued its final record of decision, opponents, represented by a Bristol attorney for the Stop the F-35 Coalition, prepared to file suit against the Air Force for selecting Burlington.
Rosanne Greco, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a South Burlington City Councilor, said the suit will expose the reason why Burlington was selected, which she has said was a deceitful process and involved the manipulation of the scoring sheets.
“The decision was a political one,” Greco said after the announcement. “There is a lot that has been going on behind the scenes that will be revealed when we challenge the decision and the whole scoring process before the court.”
Jim Dumont, the attorney representing the opposition coalition, said a lawsuit would be filed in January at the earliest.
After the announcement, the Vermont Business Roundtable, which has welcomed the jet throughout the basing decision process, issued a statement.
“To be recognized as the best of the best, the Vermont Air National Guard has secured its future for decades with the basing of the F-35 in Vermont. This decision by the Air Force will sustain a 50 million dollar per year resource for our community and continue a proud tradition of excellence by the Vermont Air National Guard,” wrote Lisa Ventriss, president of the Vermont Business Roundtable.
The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce issued a similar statement celebrating the decision.
“Vermont, and our nation, has benefitted from the dedicated individuals who serve in the Vermont Air Guard and today’s announcement ensures that the Vermont Air National Guard will be able to continue their mission for decades to come,” stated Tom Torti, president of the Chamber. “From the beginning the Chamber’s support for basing the F-35 in Vermont was focused on keeping good jobs in Vermont and sustaining those who choose to serve and protect all of us.”
The back story
The decision caps three years of debate between a divided greater Burlington community. Since 2010, the F-35 debate has frequently pitted those who cite patriotism and support of the Vermont Air National Guard against those concerned about the jet’s potential impact on the health of working-class neighborhoods, the consequences of military spending and Washington deal-making.
Prior to the release of the Air Force’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which assessed the social and environmental consequences of basing the F-35 at the six proposed locations across the country, both sides geared up for a heated debate.
The tension mounted last summer as residents used the EIS’ public comment period as a channel to voice their positions on the jet to the Air Force. In one corner, proponents stated the importance of the Vermont Air National Guard’s life expectancy as a source of jobs, economic vitality and symbol of patriotism. At the other side, opponents battled what they considered to be a military “boondoggle” threatening the health and safety of the surrounding communities adjacent to the Burlington International Airport.
Opponents, backed by a vocal and organized coalition, made the most noise — staging protests, hosting hearings, news conferences and circulating comment cards to be sent to the Air Force.
Supporters, backed by Vermont’s congressional delegation, Shumlin and Weinberger, quietly circulated petitions and postcards, gathering a large number of signatures from residents from all over the state. The proponents, composed mostly of Burlington business leaders, real estate developers and the Vermont National Guard, played defense in response to the opponents’ offensive campaign to derail the F-35 beddown.
This summer’s debate kicked-off on a raining day in a derelict, boarded-up South Burlington neighborhood off Airport Parkway. Carmine Sargent, a 41-year resident of Elizabeth Street in South Burlington, became the early poster child of the debate highlighting residents’ inability to escape the encroaching noise of the current F-16 fighter jet that could be replaced by an even louder F-35. Sargent does not want to abandon her home that has been specially retrofitted for her daughter, who has spina bifida.
The concern grew when the revised EIS was released in May: 2010 census data showed that 2,000 more people in Chittenden County would be affected by high noise levels from the F-35 than was originally projected in the previous EIS.
The opponents took the debate to the Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington to highlight on the effects of noise on children’s health, an issue that was not analyzed in the EIS. Opponents said increased noise resulting from the F-35, as stated in the EIS, would damage children’s cognitive health and learning ability.
Shortly after, proponents reacted. Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that the issue of noise was a “red herring” in the F-35 debate. Nicole Citro, organizer of the Green Ribbons for the F-35 and vice president of the South Burlington-based insurance company Citro Agency, added there is no empirical evidence that noise harms children.
Proponents were circulating postcards and petitions, a campaign led by Citro, to provide supporters the “easiest and fastest” opportunity to communicate with the Air Force, she said.
The content of the proponents’ postcards, which stated that the F-35 would produce less noise than the F-16, was debunked by the Air Force. Citro claimed there was not enough space on the postcard to fully explain her reasoning, which was informed in part by officials at the Air National Guard, she said.
The Vermont Air National Guard became the token of F-35 support. Without the F-35, the Guard would have to either leave town or changed their current mission, proponents said. (To date, Air Force officials have said that the Block 30 F-16s, as used by the Guard, are not currently scheduled for upgrades. This means the Guard would have to change their mission when the F-16s are retired.)
“The future is basically unknown, that’s part of the risk of not bringing the F-35 here,” said Lt. Col. Luke “Torch” Ahmann, 158 Fighter Wing Plans and F-35 Program Integration Officer for the Air Guard. “There is no plan to upgrade the F-16s that we have here.”
The Guard, which held several news conferences throughout the summer, repeatedly stated that opponents had misrepresented the safety information in the Air Force’s EIS. Lt. Col. Chris Caputo of the Vermont Air National Guard, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force’s Safety School, said the data in the EIS has been misrepresented as part of a “scare tactic.” He offered his own data on the safety record of the F-16s flown by the Guard, which he said have a better safety record than the airport’s commercial planes.
These arguments came on the heels of a Sept. 30 report by the Inspector General at the Department of Defense assessing the quality assurance procedures of the F-35 Program, which found it failed to meet basic standards of quality when inspected last year. Opponents consistently stated the F-35 will not have adequate flight hours to ensure safety before arrive in the year 2020.
City Council fight
The opponent’s campaign then turned to municipal lawmakers in an effort to send a message to the Air Force. This summer, communities on either end of the airport’s landing strip stated opposite positions on the basing: Winooski voted unanimously not to support the basing and South Burlington voted to support the basing.
Shortly after, the opponents of the F-35 turned their attention to Burlington, the owner of the airport that they said has the legal authority to tell its tenant, the Air Force, not to base the jet on its property.
The simplicity of this premise was later derailed by the City Attorney Eileen Blackwood’s legal memo on the Progressive-sponsored resolutions opposing the basing. She stated in her legal opinion that the city would be liable for a potential lawsuit and the airport could face funding cuts from the Federal Aviation Administration if the city outright opposed the jet.
The Burlington City Council later voted against two resolutions that would have opposed the basing of the jet either permanently or in the first round during a special meeting in October that filled City Hall to capacity. The “compromise” resolution that would bar any plane that exceeding the current noise levels or safety record of the current F-16 would likely outlaw the F-35.
This condition worried business leaders because it could also prohibit future commercial aircraft from landing at the airport, they said.
“The airport provides Vermonters and Vermont employers and businesses the gateway to the world,” said Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp, adding that the proposed resolutions “could have potentially economically devastating consequences if they are not thought through.”
During the council meeting, Gene Richards, director of aviation for the airport, said setting noise standards that are tied to the current F-16 would “cap” the future expansion plans of the airport.
This was a concern that hijacked what opponents considered to be a last-minute compromise that aligned with the city attorney’s legal advice on the resolution. This language, however, sunk the resolution.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 6:40 p.m. Tuesday.