At hearing, public divided over bedding F-35s in Burlington

On video: F-35s in Vermont
Hundreds of concerned residents turned out for an Air Force hearing on the possible bedding of 18 to 24 F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. These highlights include statements from US Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Governor Peter Shumlin; comments by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, businessman Tom Brassard, Winooski Mayor Mike O’Brien and councilor Sarah Robinson, and Rep. Brian Savage; plus the views of area residents including Cory Mack, Meagan Emery, Steve Trono, Laura Caputo, David DesLauriers, and Janice Schwartz.

BURLINGTON — Local residents expressed strong, often conflicting views at a hearing Monday night about whether the Burlington airport should become home to F-35 fighter jets. More than 300 people gathered at South Burlington High School to discuss the environmental and economic impacts of the proposal.

Most Vermont officials and business owners who spoke, or sent messages, waxed enthusiastic about the prospect. They touted economic benefits, showered praise on the Vermont Air National Guard, and warned about the possibility of lost National Guard jobs if Burlington isn’t chosen.

Opponents pointed to increased noise levels and other impacts that could damage or even destroy the viability of nearby neighborhoods.

Five locations are currently being considered by the U.S. Air Force, but Burlington International Airport is one of two “preferred alternatives.” The other is Hill Air Force Base in Utah, an Air Force command center that handles a wide variety of aircraft.

Several speakers opposed to basing the aircraft in Vermont wondered why Burlington’s relatively small airport, located adjacent to a residential neighborhood, is being considered over larger, more remote locations.

While proponents suggest this merely reflects the Vermont Guard’s excellent reputation, another reason is clearly cost. Modifications to the Burlington airport would cost $4.6 million, while changes at Hill are estimated at $40 million.

Delivery of between 18 and 24 joint strike fighters could begin in 2015, eventually flying out of Burlington airport between 5,486 and 7,296 times a year. Eighteen F-16s currently maintained by the Vermont Air Guard would be reassigned or retired.

The hearing began with a brief description of the process, followed by statements from public officials. John Tracy and David Weinstein read a joint statement from Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders who called the selection of Burlington a “major vote of confidence” for the Vermont National Guard. The statement stopped short, however, of endorsing Burlington’s selection. The two senators urged the Air Force to consider the “legitimate concerns” being expressed about noise and other environmental impacts.

Remarks read on behalf of Rep. Peter Welch were similarly nuanced, balancing the “vital importance” of the Guard and the need to hear from the community. Welch plans to submit a letter to the Air Force “reiterating what he learns from the feedback.”

“I … feel strongly that (the) drawbacks are outweighed by the extraordinary benefits that this opportunity presents our communities and our state.” ~Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin was unequivocal in his statement. He pointed to the prospect of jobs, economic growth and investment opportunities.

“I know there are some concerns about noise and other potential drawbacks,” he wrote. “While I appreciate those concerns I also feel strongly that these drawbacks are outweighed by the extraordinary benefits that this opportunity presents our communities and our state.”

The F-35, already the largest single military program in history, has been in development for more than a decade. Eight foreign countries are part of a coalition that has agreed to buy the multi-purpose aircraft once it is perfected.

But a long, growing list of agencies and officials, including the Government Accountability Office, parts of the U.S. Department of Defense, congressional committees and national parliaments in other nations, are becoming increasingly worrried about cost increases, design faults and missed deadlines.

The price per plane is currently estimated at somewhere between $110 million and $150 million — not counting another $184 million in weapons systems for each aircraft.

During a March congressional hearing, lawmakers told Defense Department and Air Force officials that the fighter jet’s development has become a prime example of how not to run such a program. A GAO report says that the F-35 already has a cost overrun of more than $1 billion and production has been delayed by six years.

A GAO report says that the F-35 already has a cost overrun of more than $1 billion and production has been delayed by six years.

At the same time the fiscal crisis in the European Union has raised questions about whether the original F-35 coalition will survive much longer. Last week, Australia pushed back its planned purchase of 70 planes by two years, which will save the country $1.6 billion. That decision came a month after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper blocked the Defense Ministry from spending any more on the fighter. Britain has also pulled back on its planned purchases.

In Fort Worth, Texas, unionized workers went on strike in late April over health-care benefits and pensions at the plant where Lockheed Martin is building the plane, and at two military bases where it is being tested. The main sticking point is Lockheed’s call for an end to the employees’ defined benefits pension. In previous contract negotiations they gave up medical benefits for retired workers.

During the public hearing at South Burlington High School, many who want the plane based in Vermont also have economic matters in mind. Tom Brasssard, a business owner and vice chair of the Burlington Business Association, urged people to “imagine what it would be like without the Air Guard here.”

His conclusion was that its presence is more important than any concerns about increased noise. Brassard and others warn that if the F-35 does not come to Burlington the National Guard base could see cutbacks, or even be closed.

Resident Steve Trono argued that the decision is a human rights issue that will affect the health and well-being of many area residents. He pointed out that the impacts would be relatively larger in Burlington than at the other bases under consideration.

“It will make more than 1,000 houses unsuitable for residential use,” he noted. Like other critics of the plan, he called claims that the base might close if the F-35 isn’t bedded in Burlington “a cheap scare tactic.”

Louis Holmes, also an opponent, argued it doesn’t make sense to base such a noisy, problematic aircraft in a densely populated area that also depends on tourism. Noting that many people who support the idea were talking about the record of the Air National Guard, while most in opposition commented on the environmental impacts, he wondered whether comments that did not focus on the contents of the EIS should be part of the official record.

According to the Air Force analysis, between 1,820 and 2,863 households could be affected by the increased noise of the aircraft. The environmental impact statement concludes that “the number of complaints received by the installation and level of annoyance experienced by underlying communities and residents would likely increase.”

Under the heading socioeconomics, the statement notes 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 would lead to 266 more military jobs. In either case, an estimated $2.34 million would be spent on construction, mainly in 2016.

The EIS also mentions “environmental justice,” a reference to the disproportionate number of low-income and minority residents live in areas who would experience the greatest noise impacts. It indicates that seven neighborhoods and two churches, as well as the Chamberlain School and St. Michael’s College, would experience “incompatible land uses for residential purposes.”

Juliet Buck, a leading critic of the plan, asked a series of pointed questions. “How much is noise remediation going to cost for the homes that aren’t bulldozed, assuming there might actually be some remediation? How long will condemned homes remain vacant?” Such questions should be addressed and answered before “anyone other than an open industry shill supports this,” she said.

The Environmental Impact Statement can be read at www.accplanning.org, or by calling 757-764-9334 for a hard copy. The public comment period is open until June 1. In the meantime, a discussion of the F-35 will be on the May 21 agenda of the South Burlington City Council.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weimberger has opted to review both the EIS and the community response before issuing his position.

Greg Guma

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