Despite fierce opposition from many in the community, the F-35 fighter plane will be based at Burlington International Airport starting in 2020, authorities announced today.
The much-anticipated decision by the U.S. Air Force was announced during a raucous ceremony attended by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Vermont Air National Guard Adjutant General Steven Cray inside a Air National Guard hangar.
“Today is a historic day for the Vermont National Guard. This is a milestone event for the Air Force in its next steps in securing the citizens of the United States,” Cray said.
Leahy and Shumlin both hailed what they called a major “grassroots” campaign in support of the planes.
“I’ve never seen such a grassroots effort in this state,” Leahy said.
But it wasn't a universal one. Today's announcement came in the wake of protracted opposition from residents who worry that the jets and their noise will disrupt neighborhoods and threaten public health. Opponents of the Burlington basing said they aren’t giving up their fight.
Jimmy Leas, a leader of the Stop the F-35 Coalition, said in an interview before the news conference that opponents will fight in court against the stealth fighter plane’s arrival at the Air Guard’s South Burlington base. Opponents will file suit in federal court against the Vermont basing decision, Leas added, under the National Environmental Policy Act.
But today's announcement at the airport was made to a friendly crowd. “For every single Vermonter, this is a great moment,” Shumlin told a crowd of 200 members of the guard. “It means thousands and thousands of jobs for Vermonters will be protected, maintained and strengthened in the future. That is a big deal for Vermont.”
During the announcement ceremony, only Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who supported the F-35 decision, mentioned the fierce opposition by some residents. Weinberger pledged to work to meet the concerns of opponents.
The Burlington base is the first reserve base in the country to receive the F-35s, which the Air Force is using to phase out the F-16. The Burlington base will be home to 18 of the new jets — it could have received as many as 24 — and its fleet of F-16s will be gradually phased out.
The decision will also bring $3 to $4 million in federal infrastructure improvements to the base, officials said, though the guard’s staffing level of 1000 members is expected to remain the same.
Vermont was chosen over sites in South Carolina and Florida. In a prepared statement, Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation lauded the basing decision.
“The decision ensures the Vermont Air Guard’s continuing mission, protects hundreds of jobs and educational opportunities for Vermonters, while securing its significant contribution to the local economy,” said the statement issued by Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch.
Jim Dumont, a Bristol attorney representing the Stop the F-35 Coalition, has filed suit in Vermont Environmental Court to force an Act 250 review of the basing plan, Leas noted. Dumont filed a response on Monday, Leas added, to a pleading in the court by the City of Burlington to have the opponents’ case dismissed.
The basing decision warrants an Act 250 review because of the noise levels the plane will produce, Leas said, citing claims that the F-35 is as much as four times louder than the F-16, which currently flies out of the Air Guard station. Noise from the military jets could also cause “cognitive impairment in children,” Leas said.
In a press conference after the announcement, Leahy said opponents worried about noise and the cost of the fighter jet had raised "legitimate concerns." (The F-35 has already cost more than $87 billion and will need more than $12 billion a year on average until 2037, the Government Accountability Office recently reported.)
But Leahy expressed faith in the Air Guard's ability to mitigate the noise from the F-35, and criticized opponents of the project who told him "'we shouldn't have any Air Guard'" in the Burlington area.
"There's no common ground between me and those who want to just get rid of the Vermont Air Guard," Leahy declared.
Winooski Mayor Michael O'Brien said he hoped the F-35s would be no louder than the F-16s that currently fly over his community.
"We'll do all we can to make the impact of the F-35 as minimal as possible," he said. The Winooski City Council voted in July to oppose the basing of the F-35 at the nearby airport, citing concerns about the noise and threats to property values.
Vermont pilots who will fly the F-35 will likely be sent to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to begin training before the planes arrived in Burlington, officials said.