F-35 foes are escalating their protests against hosting the next-generation fighter plane at Burlington's Air Guard station in anticipation of a final decision after November 4. About 100 demonstrators jammed the hallway outside Burlington City Hall Auditorium on Monday evening to hear Progressive city councilors and leaders of the anti-F-35 coalition denounce the plan. A brass band on the steps of city hall serenaded protestors arriving for the rally (pictured, right).
"Burlington," activist Paul Fleckenstein told the cheering crowd, "can be the Waterloo of the F-35."
F-35 opponents are focusing their lobbying efforts on three Democratic city councilors: Kevin Worden (Ward 1), Bryan Aubin (Ward 4) and Tom Ayres (Ward 7). If the three targeted Dems vote with the council's four Progs and independent Sharon Bushor (Ward 1) — and if Mayor Miro Weinberger approves — Burlington could still go on record as rejecting the Air Force's plan to station up to two dozen F-35s at the city-owned airport. Such an expression of opposition by the Air Force's "preferred" host city might influence the final basing decision expected in less than a month.
Worden and Ayres were noncommittal about supporting a compromise resolution that their Progressive colleagues plan to introduce at a special council meeting on the plane, tentatively scheduled for October 28. Both said they wanted to study the issue further before making a decision.
Their comments were interrupted when council President Joan Shannon (D- Ward 5) called the council into a closed-door session to hear a report from City Attorney Eileen Blackwood on the status of liability insurance for the airport. Announced last week, that issue caused the city to postpone any official vote on the plane. Before reporters and members of the public were dismissed from the room, Blackwood said she had nothing new to report about the lack of insurance coverage related to city decisions about the airport.
A comprehensive insurance policy does provide an essential financial umbrella but offers no protection against the personal impact of a disaster involving the city, Progressive Party leader Martha Abbott warned during a public comment period at last night's meeting.
Abbott, now an Underhill resident, recalled that she had been a member of the Burlington council in the 1990s when, "one rainy night, a park gate was swinging loose and impaled a 20-year-old passenger in a car." An insurance settlement with the city "hopefully paid for lifetime care for that young person who was in, or close to, a vegetative state," Abbott told the hushed gathering of councilors and spectators.
"I know that was my worst night on the council," she said.
"Imagine how we would feel," Abbott added, "if an F-35 falls out of the sky and lands on a condo development in South Burlington."
It was a timely reminder of the odd relationship between Burlington, which owns the airport, and South Burlington, which is directly impacted by what goes on there. Shannon told the audience that she and a few other councilors recently visited some residential areas adjoining the airport in an attempt to gauge sentiment about the potential impact of the F-35. Also "to heal some deep wounds," as Shannon put it.
That was a reference to the Burlington council's failure to take fully into account the effects of its decision some years ago to go along with a federal plan to purchase and demolish homes in an area deemed unfit for residential use. In South Burlington.
Councilors failed to realize that homeowners who did not agree to the buyout "didn't volunteer to be left in a neighborhood where homes were being torn down or left vacant," Shannon said. She acknowledged that airport and Air Guard officials had not adequately communicated with residential neighbors regarding noise issues and plans for depopulating an area that once included 200 homes.
Weinberger, who said he had recently visited the Elizabeth Street home of leading F-35 opponent Carmine "Gramma" Sargent, added that "it is time to resolve the neighborhood issue."
F-35 opponents argue that higher noise levels produced by the new jet would result in hundreds of additional homes being included in a zone that federal officials deem unsuitable for human habitation.
Pictured, right: Progressive City Councilor Max Tracy addressing F-35 protestors.