Leas: Follow the money – the F-35 Fudge-gate scandal

Editor’s note: This piece is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer in South Burlington.

Is the Vermont Air National Guard being used for purposes having nothing to do with its military mission? The answer is yes. Big time. And for big money. In the article, “Quite a Pair of Stings for F-35 Basing” on VTDigger I described how the scoring process was fudged. This article will follow the money to see why.

Interestingly, those who stand to gain the big money did not have to invest many of their own dollars to position themselves. They got the taxpayers to do that for them. The city of Burlington applied for and received a federal grant of $40 million to buy 200 families out of their affordable homes near the airport entrance, and the city now holds title to most of those homes. Fifty-five have so far been demolished. Another hundred homes stand vacant awaiting demolition. Other homes are awaiting purchase for demolition.

The federal government put up the money to buy those 200 homes as “mitigation” for F-16 noise above 65 decibels day-night average sound level (DNL), the noise level the federal government considers “unsuitable for residential use.” A report about Burlington International Airport prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration (the “FAA report”) says that “land acquisition and relocation is the only alternative that would eliminate the residential incompatibility” with that noise level (page 29).

Interestingly, certain Vermont officials, including Sen. Leahy and Gov. Shumlin, continue to repeatedly suggest that the F-35, which the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says is more than four times louder than the F-16, would be fine for thousands more Vermont families who live in affordable neighborhoods of Winooski, Burlington, Williston and South Burlington. The Air Force draft EIS says the F-35 would put their homes within that same 65 dB DNL noise contour that the federal government considers “unsuitable for residential use.”

According to a chart in the FAA report (page 6), different land uses have different federally mandated noise limits. Noise levels that make a home “unsuitable for residential use” are perfectly fine for commercial and industrial activity. This may be because residential use generally involves children going out to play, open windows during spring, summer and fall, family conversation, and sleeping. Hotels and other commercial buildings may have permanently closed windows and incorporate other measures in design and construction to achieve substantial sound reduction. This difference in FAA mandated noise limits is what the big money people will exploit.

The FAA report indicates that the land within the high noise contours is not scheduled to be left as green space. Taking into account the fact that land unsuitable for residential use can still be used for commercial and industrial activity, the FAA report calls for adoption of a “Reuse Plan.” In fact, the FAA report says, “preparation of a property reuse plan is an FAA grant requirement.” Thus, the affordable residential properties the city of Burlington acquired with $40 million of federal funds in South Burlington are being demolished to be made available for non-residential reuses.

The empty land from those 200 families is in fact being eyed by certain developers who stand to make lots of money by putting up commercial buildings near the airport entrance — similar to the commercial development one sees at other airports. The president of one of the state’s biggest commercial developers, Ernie Pomerleau, is a member of the Airport Strategic Planning Committee. Its meetings openly discuss things like building hotels and other commercial real estate on land next to the airport that used to be a thriving community of tiny affordable homes.

Vermont Air Guard vastly increased F-16 noise

Commercial flights had nothing to do with driving out the 200 families. The Air Force draft EIS states that “The contribution of civilian aircraft is negligible compared to the military aircraft contribution” to Burlington airport noise (page BR4-21). In the neighborhood near the airport entrance, the major component of F-16 noise comes from the use of the afterburner by F-16s for routine takeoffs.

Routine afterburner use on takeoff was not required with the original configuration of the F-16. Only when the Vermont Air Guard switched from an external fuel tank located under the fuselage to tanks mounted to the wing tips did pilots find that they needed to use the afterburner for takeoff.

Just in time to push that rezoning for commercial development, heavily moneyed interests recently formed a political action committee (PAC) and spent an unprecedented amount to almost literally purchase seats on the South Burlington City Council for two pro-developer candidates in the March 2013 election.

The F-16 fuel tanks, the afterburner, the noise, and federal funds were all methodically and smoothly used to remove the 200 families living peacefully in affordable homes. Without any hearing, a thriving community of affordable homes was destroyed in favor of the Vermont Air Guard changing the position of its external fuel tank — and in favor of making this consolidated acreage available to commercial developers.

The only remaining obstacle between those developers and giant profits is the level of South Burlington city government willingness to rezone the newly vacated land from residential to commercial.

Just in time to push that rezoning for commercial development, heavily moneyed interests recently formed a political action committee (PAC) and spent an unprecedented amount to almost literally purchase seats on the South Burlington City Council for two pro-developer candidates in the March 2013 election. While the amount spent was among the highest ever to buy a city council seat in Vermont, it is a tiny fraction of the projected gain developers can expect from redeveloping the land when the remaining houses are torn down and Burlington makes the land available to the commercial developers.

Of course, there would have been no urgent reason to tear down any of those homes if the F-16 was going to be soon phased out and replaced by quieter equipment more suitable for a commercial airport located in a valued affordable residential area. Fudging the scoring so as to introduce the even louder F-35 to replace the F-16–supported by Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, Governor Peter Shumlin, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger–consolidated the plan to destroy this affordable neighborhood.

While federal money was obtained to purchase the 200 homes in the high-value vicinity of the airport entrance, no federal money will be available to purchase the homes of the thousands more families in Winooski, Burlington, Williston and South Burlington whose homes will similarly be made “unsuitable for residential use” by the much louder F-35. Those residents will be left to take the hit to their lives and property values on their own. Burlington is applying for no federal grant, and has no intention or desire to buy up the 3,000 parcels located in the noise and crash zones in the flight path at both ends of the runway if the F-35 is based here.

The difference is that those thousands of homes are not located on commercially valuable land, such as the land in South Burlington near the airport entrance.

Airport expansion plans — another developer-soaked dream

The Air Force says the F-35 is more than four times louder than the F-16. Just as F-16 noise was vastly increased and harnessed to acquire federal money and use it to eliminate residential neighborhoods and make their valuable real estate near the airport entrance available to commercial developers, F-35 noise might in another way work magic for the developers: to facilitate major airport expansion goals. The F-35 is so loud that any amount of noise from the goal of doubling commercial jet traffic will be totally negligible compared to the F-35 noise. Just as the shift in the F-16’s external fuel tanks and routine afterburner use is now being leveraged to remove housing near the airport entrance for commercial development, continued massive military jet noise from the F-35 can be leveraged for ambitious airport expansion to pass zoning and Act 250 review.

The fudge reported by the Boston Globe may only be the frosting on the cake.

Family connection

A Hollywood story about a developer hoping to win big profits while thousands of families lose their affordable homes would never leave out some sort of love or family connection.

This Burlington story is no exception: Sen. Patrick Leahy is nephew-in-law of Tony Pomerleau, chairman of Pomerleau Real Estate, one of Vermont’s largest commercial real estate developers. Sen. Leahy is cousin-in-law of Ernie Pomerleau, president of Pomerleau Real Estate and head of its Commercial Development Investment Division. Ernie Pomerleau is also a member of the Airport “Strategic Planning Committee” that is leading the charge for airport expansion. Ernie Pomerleau accompanied Gov. Peter Shumlin on his private jet flight to “listen” to the F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base last December. And Ernie Pomerleau is a member of the board of the GBIC.

An “analysis” of home values within the 65 dB DNL noise zone was put out by the GBIC on July 19, 2012. The GBIC report found that “real estate values in the 65 DNL have maintained value correspondent with overall value in Chittenden County.”

However, while the GBIC report did mention the FAA home buyout program, the GBIC report failed to let its readers know that nearly all of the homes sold in the airport noise zone were purchased by the city of Burlington under that $40 million FAA program with federal money. According to the FAA report, “Eligible property owners will be paid fair market value for their property at its highest and best rate.” Thus, appraisers were told to make home value appraisals without regard to any diminution in value because of airport noise, as if the homes were outside the noise zone.

Therefore, the GBIC report merely amounted to saying that the FAA program worked as it was intended. It said nothing at all about what happens to the actual market value of homes when intense airport noise from F-16 or F-35 jets is taken into account. Without an FAA buyout program propping up home values, thousands of homeowners in Winooski, Burlington and Williston will be left swinging in the very heavy downdrafts in home value from F-35 noise.

Slicing into this Pomerleau-baked fudgy cake is sure to be fun for an investigator examining how, even in Vermont, GBIC executives and elected government officials are working hard to sacrifice the affordable homes of thousands of families in Vermont for the personal gain of a few developers.

But at least noise, loss of homes and neighborhoods, lost property values, fudged scoring, nepotism, buying an election and misleading reporting are not killing anybody. Unfortunately it gets worse: safety for thousands of people is also at risk, thanks to some of our elected public officials and their commercial developer friends. F-35 crash rates and crash zones and the scandalous eagerness of certain Vermont public officials to sacrifice the safety of thousands of Vermonters for the profits of a few developers will be the subject of a forthcoming article.

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