FAA offers few solutions for F-35 noise mitigation in South Burlington

Vermont Air National Guard
Members of Vermont Air National Guard attended Thursday’s meeting regarding airport noise. Photo by Emily Greenberg/VTDigger

SOUTH BURLINGTON — An official with the Federal Aviation Administration told residents here that there is little that can be done to mitigate noise from F-35 jet fighters taking off and landing at the Burlington International Airport.

The airport is located in the middle of a residential area. At a question and answer session Thursday night with officials from the FAA and the Vermont Air National Guard there was only one solution offered to concerns about noise pollution from the aircraft: Home buyouts.

“The best way to mitigate noise, at high noise levels, is to buy homes and remove them,” said Richard Doucette, the FAA’s New England Environmental Program manager. “But the city of South Burlington doesn’t want that. Usually it’s the opposite.”

South Burlington city councilors have suggested noise barriers as an alternative to home buyouts, but Doucette said that the odds of the FAA funding a noise-wall would be slim.

“I can tell you that in 15 years of doing this we’ve never built a noise barrier,” he said. “Sound will skip over the barrier unless the plane or home is right next to it. Theoretically, yes, we fund noise barriers, but there are very few of them, which shows how ineffective they are.”

According Doucette in order for a wall to be an effective at noise control it would need to be up to 60 feet tall.

The information session came on the heels of the South Burlington City Council’s passing of a resolution that called for a halt to the airport’s current home acquisition program as a form of noise mitigation, new noise exposure maps, and the city taking a role in future noise abatement planning. Although the airport is in South Burlington it is owned and operated by Burlington.

The airport currently has a $14.5 million grant to purchase 40 homes within a 73.3-decibel noise level, based on a noise-exposure map from 2015. There are 900 homes within the map’s 65-decibel noise level which are also eligible for noise mitigation efforts funded by the FAA.

The airport recently received a $450,000 grant from the FAA to explore alternatives to future home buyouts, which could mean new insulation and windows for those 900 homes.

Alternative noise mitigation efforts for those 900 homes, however, are contingent on the completion of the current round of buyouts.

The public meeting was the first of many community engagement sessions as the airport works with consulting firms over the next 12 to 18 months to come up with a replacement noise control plan, said Gene Richards, aviation director at the airport.

A process of data collection and public meetings will lead to a written policy, which could then be approved by the FAA.

The 2015 noise exposure maps, off which all noise mitigation efforts are based, used noise data from commercial airlines and military operations. The study does not take into account noise from F-35 military aircraft, which are anticipated to arrive at the airport within two years.

The overwhelming consensus from participants at the session was the need for new noise maps that take the F-35’s into consideration.

“I understand people want the F-35 on maps for mitigation,” Doucette said. “But we can’t do that until they are here, and even then it will take years to put a program in place.”

Another source of contention was the loss of tax revenue for South Burlington when homes are bought and demolished. Doucette said he hopes to see the city rezone those areas for commercial land use.

Councilor Meaghan Emory said she wants to see noise mitigation that allows those areas to remain in residential use, and that the FAA’s funding of home buyout and demolitions programs are inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

“At this point I don’t think we have any plans to rezone,” she said. “We’re expecting a letter from the FAA with regard to the incorrect information that the airport has provided, regarding consistency with South Burlington’s land use plans.”

FAA, Burlington International Airport
Gene Richards, director of aviation at Burlington International Airport, left, and Richard Doucette from the FAA at a community engagement meeting for airport noise mitigation.
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