What good are 60 vacated homes awaiting demolition in the high-noise zone bordering Burlington International Airport? Good for training exercises involving local police and fire teams, declares a resolution on the agenda of tonight's South Burlington City Council meeting.
Not according to some airport neighbors and at least one city councilor who recall a training exercise last year that included gunfire and grenade explosions. Several nearby residents complained not only about the simulated shootouts but also about state and local officials' failure to give advance notice that the area was to become a tactical training ground for camo-clad personnel toting automatic weapons.
The resolution on tonight's agenda addresses the second of those concerns. It calls for a "robust and effective means of notifying affected neighbors and neighborhoods as well as potential passers-by to the exercise." But the proposed statement, drafted by interim city manager Kevin Dorn, does not consider whether police and fire training is appropriate under any circumstances in an area that still includes several inhabited homes. The resolution assumes the vacated homes are ideal training locations that should be made available to first-responders.
That logic irks South Burlington councilor Rosanne Greco. The resolution assumes that "not notifying the people was the issue," Greco says. "To me, doing this at all in a neighborhood shows utter disrespect for the folks who are living there."
Greco says she'll propose at the outset of tonight's meeting that the resolution be pulled from the agenda. She wants the council to first hear whether residents of the potentially affected area regard police and fire training exercises as potentially acceptable in any form.
Local resident Bernie Paquette takes a similar stand, adding that before okaying future training, South Burlingtonians must be given details about what occurred during last year's exercises. Capt. Rob Evans, assistant commander of the Vermont State Police Field Force, acknowledged in comments to the Burlington Free Press in June 2012 that blank rounds and "flash-bang" grenades had been used in training exercises that, "to the untrained eye," could appear "somewhat aggressive."
In an emailed comment, Paquette says officials should answer several questions, including: "Is a residential location the best location choice? Will explosives and ammunition be prohibited? Are the sound of multiple gun shots and explosions in your local neighborhood welcome?"
South Burlington City Council President Pam Mackenzie says she expects to be able to gauge residents' sentiments by means of testimony scheduled for this evening from city police chief Trevor Whipple and fire chief Douglas Brent. Mackenzie notes that she asked Whipple and Douglas three months ago "to do some due diligence" by gathering comments on the subject from airport neighbors.
That's not good enough, Greco says. "We need to hear directly from the residents. In order for there to be a useful discussion, they have to be involved."
Chief Whipple said in an interview Tuesday morning that he's not in a position to speak for the airport neighbors. He got comments from only four of them, he noted.
This limited sampling suggests that residents may be open to some forms of training, he added, provided their concerns about "intrusions into their lives" are persuasively allayed.
Whipple affirmed the resolution's presumption, saying the vacated homes offer a "unique environment for our officers." He added that any training that might eventually take place there would be "quite limited" and pose no dangers to members of the public.