Burlington-area business leaders are stepping up their offensive against opponents of basing F-35s at Burlington International Airport.
At a press conference inside the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, three business and real estate big-wigs accused opponents of the fighter jets of "fear mongering" and spreading "vicious misinformation."
"There is a lot of misinformation out there by people who misunderstand property values and people who really don't want a military presence here," said chamber president Tom Torti (pictured).
Torti, Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation president Frank Cioffi and realtor Ernie Pomerleau also unveiled a new petition in support of basing the warplanes at BTV signed by almost 11,000 Vermonters.
Torti said claims that noise from the F-35s would harm property values were a "red herring."
"If it has such a dramatic effect on the prices of home values, why are they putting up luxury condominiums under the flight path?" Torti said, referring to a new apartment project that broke ground in Winooski this week. "It's not true. It's a red herring and we have the statistics to prove it. Don't let people buffalo you."
Citing information from something called the Center for Hearing and Communication, Torti said the world is full of noises louder than the 118 decibels the F-35 puts out at full power. Those include police and fire sirens (120 db), a rock concert (120 db) and stock car races (130 db). And Torti maintained the F-35s will not be at full power during takeoff.
"To me 118 decibels is a small price to pay for what the men and women of the Air Guard do to protect Vermont and protect our country," Torti said.
Cioffi (pictured at podium) said the issue comes down to "a matter of economics."
"For six minutes a day, four days a week, we get 1100 jobs," he said, referring to the jets' take-off time. "And that is a very, very significant positive economic impact on northwestern Vermont and the state of Vermont."
Asked by WCAX reporter Keith McGilvery if their message to the noise-weary public amounted to "suck it up," Pomerleau responded, "At no time would we ever say, 'Suck it up.' You have to understand that a fire truck, an ambulance, a police car is louder than the F-16, and we would not say, 'Get rid of the fire truck.' ...What we're saying is, the sound won't be louder."
Pomerleau (pictured right) said that Winooski has lived underneath Guard fighter planes for decades and has undergone an impressive downtown revitalization in spite of the noise. "As an expert in real estate — and there are others in the room — we have not been impacted to any of the degrees that are prophesied. And if we haven't for four decades, we're not going to with an F-35," Pomerleau said.
Gabrielle Mennier of South Burlington circulated the pro-F-35 petitions at local gas stations over the past three weeks. At the press conference, Mennier said her son, Jesse, is a Vermont National Guard pilot who has been "devastated by fear mongering and the vicious spread of misinformation." Mennier lives in South Burlington and said the city council, which voted against basing the warplanes at BTV, does not represent her views or those of many others in town.
"My son needs the F-35," Mennier said. "I think the National Guard here in Vermont needs the F-35."
At one point, Pomerleau interjected.
"We're not the outliers, folks. We're with Sanders, Leahy, Welch, with Scott, with Shumlin, with Miro," he said, referring to Vermont's top political leaders, all of whom support basing the F-35 at BTV. "We are part of that [who] are putting out this message that this is a good thing, and we're trying to offset the seeds of fear."
Which raises an interesting question: With the entire Vermont political establishment behind them, why are the state's business honchos pushing back so hard against the F-35 critics? After all, the opposition consists of mostly average citizens and the head of the South Burlington city council.
Their stated reason, as explained by Torti on Thursday, is that Burlington is competing with other locations to host the planes — and those communities want them, whereas Burlington is divided. Torti worries the Air Force will look at that and pass us by.
But there's another reason for the business counter-offensive. The opponents aren't some ragtag band of gray-haired peaceniks. They've got credibility.
South Burlington City Council chair Rosanne Greco, who has questioned the military's rationale for choosing Burlington as a preferred location for the planes, is a retired Air Force officer who achieved the rank of colonel. Bristol lawyer Jim Dumont, who's challenging the basing before the Act 250 commission and seeking rafts of military records, is one of the sharpest legal minds around when it comes to public regulatory matters. And Steve Allen, who's been poking holes in a GBIC study of property values around the airport, is one of the region's foremost real estate appraisal experts.
The opposition might not have any brand-name pols on their side, but they have people with expertise. And that's not easily dismissed.