In December 2012, Vermont’s then-Gov. Peter Shumlin squeezed into a nine-seat charter jet for a trip to Florida.
Those on board — including Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and then-Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien — were headed to Eglin Air Force Base. The mission: To hear the noise of the F-35 fighter jet firsthand, and report back to Vermonters.
The trip was paid for by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. (GBIC), a business group that has supported the basing of F-35 stealth fighter jets in the Burlington area. One of that group’s leaders, real estate magnate Ernie Pomerleau, also accompanied Shumlin on the trip.
Noticeably absent were officials from South Burlington, the city expected to shoulder the greatest burden when 18 of the jets are scheduled to arrive at Burlington International Airport next fall. They were not invited.
After touching down in sunny Florida, Democrat Shumlin and the rest of his delegation took a tour of an F-35. “It’s a pretty amazing machine,” Shumlin remarked to a Vermont Public Radio reporter who accompanied the officials.
After the tour, Shumlin listened to two idling jet models: one simulating an F-16, the military aircraft currently based in Burlington; the other mocking an F-35, the replacement. Shumlin and his colleagues also witnessed both planes taking off. “Volume, seems to me, is about the same,” Shumlin observed.
“Listening to this has been a real eye opener,” he said. “It’s a different sound, but it’s surprising how quiet the F-35 is.”
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The then-governor’s enthusiastic endorsement of the plane was consistent with the way Vermont’s top politicians have long viewed the plan to base the F-35 in Burlington. Despite concerns of opponents — who say the jet fighter will erode the quality of life in the area and threaten the health of those living near the airport — admiration for the program and host Vermont Air National Guard is shared nearly without exception, regardless of party affiliation.
Shumlin’s Republican successor, Phil Scott, heartily supports the basing as well. In his latest remarks Thursday at his weekly press conference, Scott said: “I’m all in for the F-35. I think it will be extremely beneficial for Vermont in its entirety, as part of the economy and part of the economic opportunity in the future for Vermont.”
Scott’s eager support is shared by all three of Vermont’s members of Congress, Burlington Mayor Weinberger and a coalition of local officials and citizens groups.
One could argue that any Vermont politician with an eye toward the future would be wise not to challenge the plane’s basing. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat, found this out the hard way when an archived video, in which he criticized the F-35, was made public during his 2016 bid.
In his remarks, Zuckerman questioned the role of the Vermont Air National Guard in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Guard’s current F-16s patrolled the skies of New York in the immediate aftermath.
“They flew over an area already devastated by a terrorist action,” he said during a protest outside Burlington City Hall. “I don’t believe they stopped a single thing from happening.”
The video was shared on Facebook by Republican Nicole Citro, a steadfast supporter of the planes who argued that Zuckerman was unfit to serve. The candidate later apologized for his remarks.
“Our Guard, whether it be the Air or Army, serve us at the drop of a hat, putting their families aside,” Zuckerman, who went on to win his race, said in his apology. “And I have tremendous respect for all of you. And I want to apologize again for speaking very poorly.”
Vermont’s decision-makers, by and large, have tried to steer clear of discussions about the decision to base the F-35 in Vermont, or whether the fighter jets could be substituted for a quieter type of plane.
“They have done a tremendous amount of work at the base already in anticipation of the F-35s,” Scott said this week of the Air Guard. “I would have a hard time believing there’s anything else under consideration.”
However, a number of cities have successfully resisted similar basings, forcing officials to call off or revise their plans. And an extensive VTDigger examination of government data, inspectors general reports and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) shows there is scant evidence to support the idea that Burlington would suffer if the F-35s never came.
The Air Force’s exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says, for example, that “if there is no F-35A operational beddown at Burlington (air guard station) the current mission would continue.” This conclusion was further bolstered in a federal case against the Air Force, in which Judge Geoffrey Crawford, after reviewing thousands of administrative records, declared that “there is no indication in the record that (the Air Force) has decided to close the (Vermont guard) base if the F-35 does not arrive.”
The Air Force also has said that although a number of temporary jobs would be created for hangar upgrades to accommodate the F-35, the economic impact of this work would be “minor.”
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For years, retired Col. Rosanne Greco, the de facto leader of the F-35 opposition, has pleaded with members of the congressional delegation to hear public feedback about the impact of increased noise and the loss of habitable homes in the community. In the winter of 2012, Greco and her allies even persuaded 16 Burlington-area ministers and rabbis to issue an open letter to Vermont’s politicians urging further public discussion on the matter.
Yet after all of the letters, rallies and petitions beseeching Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch to meet with residents on the issue, the only response Greco can only point to is a form letter she received from a member of the delegation in which her name was misspelled. (“The letter began, ‘Dear Ms. Truono,’” Greco recalled with a laugh.)
“There has never been any public forum where any of our congressional representatives has sat down with anybody that is opposed to this basing,” Greco said. “I don’t know if they’ve met with the National Guard, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation or Ernie Pomerleau. But I know they haven’t met with us.”
All three members of the Vermont’s congressional delegation, Leahy, Sanders and Welch, declined to be interviewed by VTDigger. In response to a set of detailed questions sent by email about the F-35, they issued a joint statement.
“The Air Force has made it clear that the F-35 is its future — and after a lengthy assessment, it selected Vermont’s Guard to be part of that future,” the statement read. The Air Force’s decision has been upheld after several reviews, and construction at Burlington’s airport and other preparations and planning are well underway. If the F-35s don’t come to Vermont, they will be somewhere else.”
The delegation added, “The Guard’s leadership has pledged to work closely with the community to develop a plan for operation of the new aircraft, as they have in the Guard’s missions with other aircraft, in ways that minimize impact of this aircraft whenever possible in the communities that they work and live in, too.”
Local political leaders have offered similarly vociferous defenses of the F-35 basing, though they have engaged in a robust public discussion of the issue, including a passionate public forum in 2013 that filled Burlington’s Contois Auditorium.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who served on the Airport Planning Commission for nine years, has always supported the F-35 basing.
“Every Vermont official responsible for the economy and the community has come down strongly in favor of supporting the basing of the F-35s,” he said. “Without that basing there is no clear future mission.”
The city of Burlington owns and runs the airport, and Weinberger’s defense of the basing is largely tied to dollars and cents. The mayor points to a complicated web of grants and agreements Burlington has entered into with the federal government that would make it logistically difficult to stop the stealth fighter jets.
In 2014, Burlington International Airport was recommitted as a dual-use airport, which stipulates that the city cannot preclude any government aircraft from touching down. That agreement, which allows access to special federal grants, is set to expire in June.
Weinberger said if the city blocked the F-35, the airport could lose approximately $3.5 million in annual FAA dollars as well as the Guard’s Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting force, which has annual operating costs of around $2 million.
“Should the airport have to provide these services directly and increase budgetary expenditures, BTV would have to increase rates to the airlines,” said Gene Richards, the airport’s aviation director. That “would in turn increase ticket prices from the air carriers or could lead to airlines choosing to reduce service,” he said.
Leaders in South Burlington and Winooski have generally opposed basing F-35s in the area and feel their communities aren’t being heard. The City of Burlington wields nearly complete control over airport operations, despite the fact that the planes take off and touch down in South Burlington. The Burlington Airport Commission includes four Burlington members and just one representative from South Burlington. Winooski, which is projected to see increased noise levels from the F-35, has no representation on the panel.
Meghan Emory, who has served on the South Burlington City Council for eight years, said her city has “long wanted a place at the table, and it has been denied to us.” She described Burlington as “the bully in the sandbox,” saying the Queen City has consistently opted for the Federal Aviation Administration’s home-acquisition program against the wishes of South Burlington residents.
To mitigate noise damage from the current F-16s, the airport obtained grants from the FAA to purchase homes from residents and tear them down. So far, about 200 houses around the airport have been razed. More than 1,000 homes will be rendered uninhabitable because of the extreme noise. Schools, churches, hospitals and child care centers will also be adversely affected.
“Losing those homes has been a hit to our tax base,” Emory said. “We lack control and oversight over a very valuable part of our city. Our sovereignty and our property rights are completely compromised.”
Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard expressed similar frustration over being frozen out of airport deliberations. The F-35 is expected to bring more noise to Winooski, but Leonard said the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the congressional delegation have proved to be unresponsive and unhelpful in efforts to mitigate community damage.
“We are at the end of the runway, we bear a disproportionate burden, yet we have no formal power in the decision making process,” Leonard said.
Weinberger told VTDigger this week that the home-acquisition program would end soon and acknowledged a “point of tension between us and these communities.” Weinberger has been meeting privately with Leonard and South Burlington City Council Chairwoman Helen Riehle to “build the relationship back and to take on airport issues in a different collaborative manner.”
While South Burlington and Winooski are expecting negative economic impacts from the F-35 basing, business leaders say the planes will boost the economy.
Richards, the aviation director, often points to the 1,000 full- and part-time Vermont jobs that directly support the Guard. He also said $100 million worth of airport infrastructure improvements related to the F-35 basing are underway.
Yet evidence of potential economic benefits of the F-35 has, at times, proven to be elusive. In 2012, when Richards was the chair of the Airport Commission, he said in a meeting that the F-35 basing would “bring in $200 million per year in economic benefits to the area plus 1,000 jobs.”
However, when asked recently by VTDigger for information to support that claim, Richards said in an email that “as this meeting was six years ago, I don’t recall this specific statement or the context.”
Other business groups supportive of the basing — from the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC) — have produced F-35 economic impact reports that have drawn criticism.
The GBIC commissioned a study in 2012 that predicted no decline in home values from the F-35 basing, a claim that was challenged by real estate appraiser Steve Allen. He said the data set used was “extremely small” and therefore “statistically unreliable.” In addition, the study included home purchase data by the FAA, which offered top dollar to residents.
The next year, opponents of the F-35 commissioned their own study that used assessed values, not what the FAA paid. Richard Larsen, a certified appraiser, found that homes near the airport had actually seen a 15 percent average decline in value.
“As a licensed appraiser, I’m obligated to be impartial and professional,” said Larsen when asked if the opponents of the F-35 looked to influence his work. “I was asked to analyze real estate values, which is my area of expertise, and that’s exactly what I did. Property sale prices were impacted by proximity to the airport.”
GBIC this week released an updated study on the economic impact of the Vermont National Guard. Unlike the 2012 study, it does not address property values near the airport, focusing instead on the employment numbers and projected capital expenditures.
Frank Cioffi, the president of GBIC, maintains that his organization’s primary concern is the retention of 1,049 full-time and part-time Air Guard positions. “I think there’s a huge risk that they could vanish” if the basing decision were somehow reversed, he said.
Pomerleau, the GBIC leader and real estate developer, has been one of the most ardent defenders of the F-35. He has paid for ads that support the basing and has penned several op-eds. He has also accused those opposed to the F-35 of being “crazies,” “clearly anti-military” and creating an “ethosphere of misnomers.”
“Chittenden Country has the strongest economy in Vermont, right?” Pomerleau said in a recent interview. “One of the reasons is we’ve got an airport. And I want to make sure that airport stays strong, and one of the ways to do it is keep the military there as part of their mission.”
Some F-35 opponents say they see Pomerleau’s support for the planes as a move to boost his own business. As houses have been torn down, they argue, new commercially viable land near the airport has opened up, giving developers an opportunity to swoop in.
Pomerleau helped craft a 2013 report as a member of the Airport Strategic Planning Committee that recommended the airport identify and prioritize land parcels near the airport that “can/should be developed.”
However, he says any suggestion that he’s involved in the issue for personal gain is “slanderous,” adding that he did not enter the bidding process for a new airport hotel and further pledged: “I am never going to develop around the airport.”
“For those bastards to say I’m doing this for my economic development is so egregious it’s almost funny,” he said. “I have never put my name out to be a developer of the airport. I don’t have interest in building around the airport.”
While Pomerleau has purchased ads and supported studies in favor of the F-35, another prominent Vermont businessman has been providing financial backing to the plane’s opponents.
Ice cream magnate Ben Cohen said Thursday he will be driving around Burlington beginning at noon on Saturday with a huge mobile-mounted sound system designed to simulate the roar of an F-35 taking off.
“The problem is that people can’t imagine the severity of this jet blast,” said the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. “You read the words and it says ‘115 decibels,’ but nobody has any idea what that means. It’s more than hearing, its feeling. My understanding is it’s a very visceral experience with troubling health effects.”
While Pomerleau diverges from Sanders on many matters, he applauds the senator’s support for the F-35. Cohen, meanwhile, who stumped across the country on behalf of Sanders during his 2016 presidential bid, said he’s disappointed with his friend’s outlook on this issue.
“I agree with and support Bernie 99 percent of the time,” Cohen said. “This happens to be the one issue that we disagree on.”
On March 6, the long divisive fight will enter a crucial stage when Burlington voters consider a ballot resolution asking the City Council to request cancellation of the planned basing. Backers of the advisory proposal argue the Air Force can still change course, citing jurisdictions that have reversed controversial basing decisions and have substituted cargo aircraft.
However, Vermont’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, says “there is no alternative mission being planned” for the Guard.
While federal law prohibits military officials from directly advocating for an up or down vote, Cray and other Guard officials have held a series of media events to address what they call “misinformation” coming from opposition groups.
“I want to be perfectly clear that I am the spokesperson for the National Guard and its mission, not the opponents,” Cray said at a Feb. 9 press conference. Cray reiterated that the basing decision is irreversible.
This week, Guard personnel opened portions of the base to members of the media to demonstrate that preparations for the new jets are underway. Among the improvements are upgrades to the base’s primary maintenance facility and renovations to a simulator building that will house F-35 flight training equipment. The Guard acknowledged that the current slate of construction projects also includes facility maintenance efforts that would have been undertaken regardless of the F-35 beddown.
As modifications ramp up, the Guard is gradually decommissioning its fleet of 23 F-16 jets. Eight have already left the base.
Guard officials, meanwhile, have deflected suggestions that they could shift to a mission using cargo planes or other fighter jet alternatives. Brig. Gen. Joel Clark said Wednesday that the Air Force plans to scale back its use of the C-130 cargo plane. He wrote in an email that “neither of the three (available) cargo planes would fit in the existing hangars.”
On Thursday, Gov. Scott also scoffed at the idea of an alternate to the F-35 program.
“I don’t know what that would be,” he said. “But I want to make sure that we have an active airport and that we have an active base. Again, it’s essential for our economy in that region.”
Pomerleau, for his part, sees the ballot language as biased, and the effort as futile.
“Do you think for one second that the federal government is going to stop this major project based on a stupid ballot item?” he asked incredulously.
While Weinberger is supportive of the basing, he told VTDigger earlier this month that he would reconsider his stance depending on the outcome of the ballot vote.
Weinberger’s two mayoral opponents, independents Carina Driscoll and Infinite Culcleasure, have both come out against the basing. Early in her bid, Driscoll was noncommittal on the matter, but she has recently announced her full support of the ballot item to stop the F-35. Culcleasure did not respond to inquiries from VTDigger.
Driscoll said that if she is elected and if the ballot measure gets strong support she would work to halt the F-35. She pledged to consult with other communities that have successfully changed course, work with the congressional delegation, and assess the various commitments and investments already made in anticipation of the plane.
“It’s not as if a ‘Yes’ vote will mean the F-35 won’t be based here,” Driscoll said. “But my commitment is to do what I can, in my power as mayor, to change course. I don’t know what that entails yet, and it would be a very big undertaking. But it’s one I’m committed to taking on.”
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