Vermonters opposed to basing the F-35 stealth fighter at the Burlington airport rallied outside and inside Senator Patrick Leahy's downtown office on Wednesday afternoon.
The 100-plus demonstrators who assembled near the Democracy sculpture on Main Street were asking to talk with the senator about his support for stationing up to 24 of the planes in Vermont. Opponents were also urging Leahy to convene a public hearing on the F-35's environmental impact, especially the effect of its engine noise on thousands of residents within earshot of the airport.
"No" and "no" was the response of John Tracy, Leahy's chief of staff (pictured below, after the jump). "He's in Washington and won't be speaking with you," Tracy told a a delegation of about a dozen F-35 opponents who crowded into a waiting area in the senator's fourth floor suite of offices at 199 Main Street. "We're not making a commitment to a public hearing at this time."
A few of the protestors peppered Tracy with questions and criticisms in an exchange that lasted about 20 minutes.
"We've spoken with you a number of times," F-35 foe Paul Fleckenstein told Tracy. "We want to speak with the senator."
Jimmy Leas, a South Burlington attorney, added, "So far he has only made himself available to speak with supporters of the plane."
Tracy: "I don't want to get into a debate with you."
Leas: "This is the problem."
Another demonstrator noted that a group of 16 Burlington-area ministers and rabbis had on Tuesday released an open letter to Vermont elected officials urging further public discussion on the wisdom of basing the supersonic bomber near residential neighborhoods. Citing concerns about excessive noise, the Christian and Jewish clergy members also called on Leahy and other officials to "advocate for postponing a decision about bringing the F-35s to Vermont at this time."
Leahy is not alone in putting out a Vermont welcome mat for the F-35s. His Washington colleagues, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, also want the planes based here, as do Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Opponents of the proposed basing complain that all these elected officials have refused to meet with them.
Tracy maintained that the Air Force, not Sen. Leahy, will decide whether to bring the planes to Vermont. He said there has been ample public airing of views on the basing issue — "eight public meetings in 2012 alone" — and that the senator has responded to F-35-related letters from more than 300 of his constituents. Leahy continues to work on issues vital to the well-being of Vermonters, such as averting a plunge off the so-called fiscal cliff, Tracy added.
Chris Hurd, a South Burlington resident and realtor (pictured), said in response that if fiscal probity is a major concern of Leahy's, "Wouldn't it make more sense that we should not be having such an expensive, bloated and ineffective weapons system?" Noting that he is a Democrat who has "respected Senator Leahy," Hurd told Tracy, "but on this issue I'm completely not supporting him."
Leahy released a written statement coinciding with the demonstration that reiterated his support for basing the F-35 at the Vermont Air Guard station at the Burlington airport. "Burlington is ideally situated for training and is just a short flight to the Atlantic Ocean for supersonic training, and these operational considerations are a key to the Air Force’s choice," the statement added. "Since the days of Ethan Allen, the Vermont Guard has been an essential cog in our security because our Guard is absolutely one of the best in the nation."
Leahy noted that he does support "noise-abatement steps, just as operational controls limit F-16 noise at the airport today."
The noise of planes currently using the Burlington airport is such, Leas told the crowd on Main Street, that about 200 modestly-priced homes in South Burlington have been slated for demolition. The houses are being purchased and torn down under a federal program that seeks to remove residents of areas where airport noise is judged to hazardous to health.
The protestors appeared undaunted by Leahy's refusal to speak with them. Opponents are moving forward with an effort to require the proposed basing of F-35s to be subjected to a review under the state's Act 250 land-use management law.
"It's not going to be based in Vermont," Hurd told the demonstrators on Main Street as darkness descended following the confrontation upstairs with Tracy. "We're not going to let it happen."