The battle over local basing of the F-35 will soon return to a familiar arena — the Burlington city council. Last summer, councilors passed a resolution asking for more information about the planes without supporting or opposing the basing. But now F-35 opponents intend to introduce a resolution declaring the war plane unwelcome at the city-owned airport.
The four Progressives who plan to bring the resolution to a vote on October 7 face a difficult task. To win, they need to sway a majority of the 14 council members. Ward 7 councilor Tom Ayres, considered the most potentially persuadable of the seven council Democrats, said on the margins of a Wednesday press conference outside city hall that he will not vote for any resolution categorically rejecting the F-35. And that’s exactly what the Progs’ proposal would do.
But the plane’s opponents did wheel out a new political weapon on Wednesday. Three Democratic state legislators, including senate majority leader Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden, pictured), attended the anti-F-35 press event. Activists there argued that the Burlington city council has the power, as landlord of the airport, to prevent its tenant, the Vermont Air National Guard, from operating the aircraft on city property.
Baruth is the highest-ranking Democrat in the state to publicly oppose the local basing option. The Chittenden County senator has cracked the solid wall of Democratic-establishment support erected by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Congressman Peter Welch and Mayor Miro Weinberger. Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders also favors stationing the plane in Vermont, as do most local business leaders and thousands of Vermonters who have sent postcards to the Air Force urging the military to bring the F-35 to the Burlington airport.
The Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation lashed back at the F-35's foes in a statement issued later on Wednesday. The Progs' resolution is "based on fear-mongering and emotion rather than fact," said GBIC President Frank Cioffi. Opponents of the plane are reducing the debate over local basing to "anecdotal diatribe," Cioffi added. His statement did not specify which aspects of the resolution are viewed in those ways by GBIC.
At the noontime press event, Baruth declared, “I oppose the basing because I think putting the plane in a highly residential area in the most populated part of the state is a serious mistake.”
Joanna Cole, a Democratic state representative from Burlington’s New North End (pictured), added that the basing decision “should be a state issue.” Suzi Wizowaty, a state lawmaker from Burlington’s South End, agreed, suggesting that if a vote were held during next year’s legislative session the outcome might be different from the pro-F-35 verdict rendered by Vermont legislators three years ago. That result occurred "before the facts were known," added anti-F-35 activist Chris Hurd, who pointed out that the Air Force's environmental impact statement had not been issued at that time.
City councilor Vince Brennan, a Ward 3 Progressive, added that Shumlin had “opened the door” to debating the basing plan when he traveled to Florida last year to listen to the noise the F-35 made on takeoff. “I hope he’s listening now,” Brennan said on Wednesday, “and will have a change of heart.”
Baruth, however, said he has not discussed the F-35 basing issue with Shumlin. The state senator added that the debate should be focused for now at the local level rather than in Montpelier.
Baruth wasn't the only one at the press event who brought up the risk of the new fighter jet crashing in the Burlington area.
Progressive councilor Rachel Siegel (pictured) said the F-35 presents crash risks “much higher than anything we’ve ever had here.” Extrapolating from figures included in the Air Force’s environmental impact statement, Siegel said the F-35 would be 236 times more likely to crash during its first two years of operation in Vermont than is the case for the F-16 fighter currently based at the airport. Extrapolating further from Air Force and National Transportation Safety Board data, the Ward 3 Progressive calculated that the F-35 would be 42,000 times more likely than a commercial plane to crash during its first two years in Vermont.
Opponents noted that an older military jet, the F-89, did crash in a field in Williston in 1965, killing two crew members. That plane fell into a field, Siegel said, adding that if the F-35 were to crash in Williston in the coming years, “the effects would be chilling.”
A total of 1443 households are situated in a zone near the airport where the F-35 might crash, Siegel said.
Concern over the physical dangers the plane could pose to residents near the airport was added to the familiar litany of objections — recited again on Wednesday — regarding its environmental impact, the losses in property value that the F-35 would allegedly cause, and the health effects of the plane's roar.
Jim Dumont (pictured), an attorney for the Stop the F-35 coalition, warned that Burlington taxpayers “would be left holding the bag” for what he described as potentially $100 million in damages resulting from lost property values attributable to the F-35. Dumont’s figure is based on a 15 percent decrease in the value of 3410 residential units said to be located in the high-noise contours that the F-35 would produce.
Expect to hear more about that at the October 7 council meeting.