COLCHESTER — The Vermont Air National Guard on Friday released what they say is a “roadmap” to mitigate the environmental impacts of the F-35 fighter jet when it arrives in Burlington in 2020.
“The plan is an initial roadmap,” said Vermont Air National Guard Col. T.J. Jackman at a news conference Friday. “The plan is a living document and will likely be updated several times before the F-35s arrive here in 2020.”
After a contentious three-year process, the U.S. Air Force last year selected Burlington as the location for a fleet of 18 F-35 fighter jets to replace the Guard’s aging F-16s.
Critics of the basing decision say the new jet will cause adverse health and environmental impacts. Their chief concern is that the new F-35s will be louder than the current F-16s.
According to the Air Force, the jets’ arrival will expand the area around the Burlington International Airport affected by noise to include more than 2,000 homes with a 65 decibel day-night-average sound level.
The Guard’s noise mitigation plan calls for a study after the F-35s arrive, which could take more than a year, Jackman said. However, he said the Guard will adjust flight patterns to reduce noise impacts immediately.
“We’re going to find ways to do the best we can to reduce that impact,” he said. “The noise mitigation will be when the F-35 arrives with regard to how we fly the airplane.”
This includes adjusting take-off procedures, flight altitudes, power settings and flight times, Guard officials said.
But opponents of the F-35 basing in Burlington, who are backed by a vocal and organized coalition, said the plan does not go far enough to ensure noise will be mitigated.
“This seems to be a case of the emperor has no clothes,” said Rosanne Greco, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former South Burlington city councilor. “There’s nothing in this document that says how this is going to relieve or reduce the noise impacts of this plane.”
Greco said there should be more noise planning before the jet arrives.
“When it comes here, well, then it’s too late,” she said. “It’s going to come here, and then they are going to say, ‘we can’t do anything.’”
But Guard and airport officials said they need more data on the F-35 noise levels before they begin noise mitigation strategies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also needs more information before it puts up any money for noise abatements.
“There are no promises because we don’t know,” said Gene Richards, director of aviation for the airport. “As far as the FAA, they will not do anything unless we have facts. That’s what we don’t have today is a lot of facts.”
Pam Mackenzie, chair of the South Burlington City Council, said the city is already working on a plan for the Chamberlin School neighborhood in response to the anticipated arrival of the F-35s.
Days after the airport was selected to host the fighter jet, South Burlington received a $17,000 municipal planning grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development to fund the first phase of the planning process.
Mackenzie said the grant will be used to launch the planning process in June. That process includes building a working relationship between the neighborhood and the airport, planning new infrastructure projects – including parks, airport access and affordable housing – and working on a plan to mitigate airport noise.
The discontinued FAA home buyback program left the residential neighborhood dotted with vacant, boarded-up homes. The demolition of about 62 homes is stalled by a demolition permit appeal.
“Until there is a decision from the Vermont Supreme Court about the lawsuit that stopped the demolition, the airport can’t do anything,” Mackenzie said. “Rather than waiting around twiddling our thumbs, we decided to start the process by listening to residents and collectively seeing what resources are available.”
She is confident that the city will receive a $100,000 grant from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission to break ground on new projects in the area.
To accommodate the planes, the Guard will upgrade and renovate existing base infrastructure, including aircraft hangars, maintenance shops, simulator facilities and work areas, according to the plan. When practical, the Guard will incorporate Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and sustainable development concepts into the construction.
Upon arrival of the first F-35, the Guard will work with the Air Force to develop emergency fuel dumping procedures and a new crash response plan with the fire department, the plan states.
The Guard will develop, implement and track the progress of the plan. The Air Force will be responsible for ensuring the plans are carried out.