UPDATED BELOW with comments from Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood.
The Vermont National Guard announced last night that the Air Force will delay for several months its decision on basing F-35 fighter planes at Burlington International Airport so it can consider newer census data on the number of people that would be impacted by jet noise.
In a press release issued Wednesday evening, the Guard said the final decision on basing F-35s would be delayed until "spring 2013" so the Air Force can update the environmental impact statements (EIS) to include 2010 census data for all six locations under consideration to host the world's most expensive weapons system.
"At the time the Air Force began the EIS process, 2010 census data were not available for all six locations," read the Guard statement. "The Air Force is committed to producing the most accurate EIS possible, so decision makers have the best information available to make an informed decision."
Meanwhile, a lawyer representing F-35 opponents said he's preparing a petition to block the potential basing by forcing a voter referendum in Burlington that would effectively starve the airport of needed funding. Bristol attorney James DuMont said a rarely invoked section of the Burlington city charter requires voter approval for the airport's construction and maintenance budget. He wants to put a ballot question to voters some time this spring that says, "so long as F-35 jets are regularly based" at BTV, money for construction, equipment and improvement shall not exceed $1 — effectively depriving the airport, and the Guard, of the funds they need to operate.
DuMont plans to get the petition out this week. "Winter is a tough time to gather petition signatures in northern Vermont," he said. "Each signature has to be witnessed by the person taking it. You can't just leave it at a grocery store."
So DuMont intends to circulate it on Town Meeting Day in March. He said he needs signatures from 5 percent of Burlingtonians who voted in the last election to get his question on the ballot.
In a more general sense, DuMont said the Air Force's delay buys him time to pursue numerous legal appeals related to the F-35 basing. DuMont is seeking from the Air Force scoring sheets that determined their preferences for basing the F-35. He got Burlington's score through the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, but Air Force officials said they could only release scores for other bases upon request from congressmen or senators in those states.
"From the public's perspective, it's outrageous to say they won't give them to the public," DuMont said. He's appealed that decision to the secretary of the Air Force and said he will sue for the score sheets if his appeal is denied.
Secondly, DuMont has also sought an opinion from state environmental officials on whether basing F-35s at BTV would require Act 250 approval. Whoever loses on that opinion will likely sue in environmental court, DuMont said. "By putting this off until [spring], we may be able to get an environmental decision then."
South Burlington City Council chair Rosanne Greco, a leading opponent of basing the F-35s at BTV, said Thursday she was pleased with the Air Force's delay and hoped that new information would change the mind of Vermont's senior politicians.
Greco, who is a retired Air Force colonel, pointed out that South Burlington's population has grown significantly in the past decade — from 14,000 to 18,000 — meaning more people would be affected by jet noise. When it took a stand against basing the jets here in June, the South Burlington City Council sent a 12-page letter to the Air Force asking it to use 2010 population figures, rather than the 2000 figures it had relied on in the draft environmental impact statement issued earlier last year, Greco said.
U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Peter Shumlin all support basing the planes at BTV, saying it will create and preserve jobs and support America's national defense. But Greco said, "Every single one of them came out in support of the F-35 before the facts were made known. When you learn something different, you might take a different position."
Local business leaders who support basing F-35s at BTV also apparently asked the Air Force to use 2010 census data. Vermont Public Radio quoted Frank Cioffi, head of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., saying, "We felt it would increase the accuracy of the report to use the more current data. They responded quickly with the appropriate action we suggested."
Does Greco believe new data make any difference in the Air Force's decision?
"My optimistic side says they are going to take the time, look at this and say the people matter more than the planes," Greco replied. "The realist in me says I don't think this matters a hooch."
Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said Friday that by her reading of the law, the city council — not the voters — have sole authority to approve the Burlington International Airport budget.
“On the basis of the petition that you emailed to us, it did not look to me as though what was in that petition would be something that would be valid for the voters to vote on,” Blackwood said. “We’ve obviously only taken a very quick look at this but I would say that is our conclusion at this point in time.”
In response, DuMont explained that in order for the public not to have the right to vote on items such as airport budgets, a city charter would need an section specifically stating that — and that Burlington’s charter has no such section.
“Of course, deciding issues like this is why we have judges,” DuMont said. “We think the public’s right to vote should not be infringed without a specific statement in the charter taking away that right. We hope the courts will agree.”