Activists opposed to the planned basing of F-35 fighter jets in Burlington made a final plea to voters Monday to consider the health effects of noise exposure on area children when they cast their ballots on Tuesday.
Question #6 on the Burlington ballot asks voters whether the City Council should request the cancellation of the planned basing and ask for quieter aircraft. Vermont Air National Guard officials and local economic development boosters have stressed that the ballot measure is non-binding and will not affect the military’s plans.
Environmental impact data compiled by the Air Force in 2013 states that the F-35 will be four times louder than the F-16s currently stationed at the Vermont Air Guard base. That volume increase will disproportionately affect young children at area homes and schools, opponents said at a press conference Monday.
Among the dozens of activists gathered at City Hall was Fiona Griffin, who lives under the airport flight path in Winooski. Griffin said that her two children, now ages 4 and 2, have been afraid of the F-16s since they were toddlers.
“Fighter jets have woken my babies while they slept, scared them while they played, and brought them to tears on more than one occasion,” Griffin said. “It’s just really disruptive.”
Griffin said that she plans to move her family out of Winooski if the basing plan moves forward, but she’s concerned that they won’t be able to afford another home nearby. “We would be lucky if we could stay in Chittenden County,” she said. “We’re really looking at upending our whole life.”
According to Air Force data, F-35s will substantially drive up noise exposure in the rapidly developing city off the northern end of the airport runway. Hundreds of Winooski homes will be added to the 65-69 decibel day-night average zone, which the federal government deems “unsuitable for residential use.”
Noise is also projected to rise at four area schools; two others will hear sound levels similar to the F-16. Several studies, including a World Health Organization report cited by speakers Monday, have demonstrated the negative effects of noise on children’s learning comprehension.
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Dr. John Reuwer, a physician based in South Burlington, cited a recent study by the American College of Cardiology that links noise exposure with increased rates of cardiovascular disease. “Adults can decide for themselves whether or not they want to take these risks,” Reuwer said. “Children cannot.”
Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, opened his remarks by apologizing to residents for blasting them with noise this weekend at a protest meant to simulate the sound of the jet engines. “It was necessary to recreate that sound because it’s impossible to describe it in words,” he said.
Cohen was arrested for the demonstration, which he said proves that the City Council should not have approved the military’s plans at all. “If it’s legal for them to inflict it on 6,600 people, it should be legal for us to go around demonstrating what it’s like for people,” he said. “Either it’s legal or it’s not.”
Cohen said he was initially opposed to the F-35 out of concern about what he called “the over-militarization of our society.” But the proposal to station the jets in the city where he lived and launched a business empire led him to speak out.
“We all hope that these warplanes will never be used in war,” Cohen said Monday. “But if they harm our own civilians just by practicing, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?”
The event followed weeks of escalating rhetoric from both sides. Vermont Air Guard officials held two press conferences last month aimed at refuting opponents’ claims and demonstrating that preparations for the new jets are already underway.
The Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, which promotes economic development in Chittenden County, last week released a new report that enumerates the value of the jobs and airport improvements provided by the Vermont National Guard. Real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau, who previously chaired GBIC, has written op-eds reiterating his support for the project.
Grassroots organizers on both sides have distributed lawn signs, circulated mailers and bought high-profile newspaper ads. One opposition campaign has spent an estimated $15,000, Seven Days reported last week.
Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel who has become a leading voice in the opposition, organized Monday’s event with the Save Our Skies campaign. Greco said afterwards that she was optimistic about Tuesday’s vote, although a new ad featuring comments from Sen. Bernie Sanders in support of the basing had tested her confidence. (Sanders, along with Vermont’s other members of Congress, has been a longtime supporter of the project.)
Greco said that if voters approve the ballot measure, “that sends a very clear message.” The mayor and city council members would be “honor bound” to convey to the Air Force that residents oppose the planes, she said.
If the measure fails, the fight could continue even after the planes are stationed at the base. “Once they arrive, then you really have a valid lawsuit about the damages and impact on your property values and eventually your children’s health,” Greco said. “We’re not going to stop.”
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