Burlington City Council Extends Airport Lease for Air National Guard | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Burlington City Council Extends Airport Lease for Air National Guard


Published October 24, 2023 at 1:39 a.m.

An attendee at Monday's meeting - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • An attendee at Monday's meeting
The Vermont Air National Guard will be allowed to operate at Burlington’s city-owned airport through 2073 under a 25-year lease extension the city council approved on Monday over the fierce objections of F-35 opponents.

The 8-4 vote to extend the lease will allow the base to qualify for up to $51 million in federal spending over the next five years, according to officials from the Air Guard.

The vote followed a lengthy debate that pitted critics of the F-35s — who raised a host of health and safety concerns about the jets — against supporters who cited a range of financial and economic benefits the Air Guard provides to the city and region.

“While I’m not particularly a fan of the F-35, or any plane flying over my head, I think that the benefits we have heard here tonight are important to remember,” Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said.

Among the benefits: The Air Guard provides $3 million in firefighting services at the Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport that the city could have to replace if the organization left, a point officials stressed at length.

Nic Longo, director of aviation at the airport, said the Air Guard's presence was "vital to the continuity of operations" at the airport. It operates a hangar across the runways from the civilian airport, which is technically located in South Burlington.

Progressive members of the council tried to postpone the vote, citing the limited time they and the public had to consider the extension. They urged a wider community discussion, including with residents in Winooski and South Burlington, two cities also affected by the F-35 flights. The caucus also tried to change the length of the lease extension term. When those measures failed, all four Progs voted against the extension.

“Real harm is being done. It’s being done to health. It’s being done to housing. It’s being done to economic activity,” Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2) said of the jets.

The current lease expires in 2048, but to qualify for federal military construction spending, the base needs to have at least 25 years remaining on its lease. The base is slated for $8 million in renewable energy and clean heating projects and another $32 million in building construction over the next five years.

A number of business leaders urged the council to approve the extension on economic development grounds.

Among them was Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, a nonprofit economic development organization that serves Chittenden County. Also in attendance was Kyle Clark, the chief executive officer of Beta Technologies, who said it didn’t seem wise to him to “push away an entire group of people” by not extending the Guard's lease. His company is also based at the airport.
An attendee holding a sign at Monday's meeting - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • An attendee holding a sign at Monday's meeting
Mayor Miro Weinberger announced his intention to seek the extension last week. On Monday, he called the lease extension the “next important step in ensuring the mutual success of Burlington, our airport, VTANG and the region.”

He acknowledged the “many thoughtful concerns” raised about the Air Guard’s operations and noted that “these impacts are significant and experienced unevenly by residents of this region.”

But he said the city and the Air Guard had spent millions trying to address the issues, and the new agreement went even further to try and do so.

Some councilors said Weinberger had not left them not enough time to discuss such a consequential decision.

Councilor Melo Grant (P-Central District) said she was extremely frustrated that an issue of such import only came to them in an executive session 11 days earlier.

“I think that was a tactical maneuver,” Grant said.

The final vote in favor of the extension also includes an associated "memorandum of understanding." That document calls for the Air Guard to take “all reasonable efforts” to reduce noise and emissions from aircraft operations, including exploring increased use of flight simulators, alternative takeoff and landing procedures, and the use of “sustainable aviation fuel.”

Foes of the F-35, which the Air Guard began flying from the base in 2019, descended on the meeting to protest the extension. As they have for years, opponents focused on the sound levels of the F-35 jets, which are significantly louder than their predecessor, the F-16s.

At a 5 p.m. protest outside city hall and during public comment, residents assailed the lease extension as something that will assure the powerful fighter jets continue to roar over the region for decades to come.
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Two F-35s
“How dare we act with such hubris right now that will lock this community into a lease until 2073. How dare we!” Vermont Rep. Troy Headrick (P/D-Burlington) said.

He noted that his children would be 78 and 80 years old by the time the extended lease is up. He had a simple response to those who argue that the city could lose out on millions of dollars in federal funds without the extension: “I don’t care!”

Dan Castrigano, an opponent of the jets who has also urged the city to reduce commercial flights at the airport, said he and his 2-year-old son were walking on the bike path recently when the F-35s “ripped over us.”

“Anyone who is complicit in this, it just makes me very angry, because you are causing harm to my son” said Castrigano, who has also spoken of the climate impacts of the jet flights.
Burlington resident Sandy Wynne urging the council to reject the lease extension - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Burlington resident Sandy Wynne urging the council to reject the lease extension
Earlier in Monday's meeting, the council held a long-delayed work session on a proposed district energy plan that would supply the University of Vermont Medical Center with steam from the McNeil Generating Station.

The council took no action but heard an update on the status of a project that has changed significantly in recent months as the Burlington Electric Department and project partners negotiated terms with the hospital.

The $42 million project would pump steam from the 40-year-old wood-fired McNeil plant up the hill to the hospital, replacing much of the steam the hospital now generates with its natural gas-fired boilers.

The Burlington Electric Department estimates that using McNeil steam to heat the hospital could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the city’s commercial sector by 16 percent, or 7 percent for the city overall.
From left: Neale Lunderville, Stephen Leffler and Darren Springer at Monday's meeting - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • From left: Neale Lunderville, Stephen Leffler and Darren Springer at Monday's meeting
Several council members asked questions that suggested they were skeptical about the project’s costs, complex ownership structure and climate benefits.

Councilor Bergman said he was concerned about the 20-year term of the proposed project. He said he worried that agreeing to such a long period might delay the city’s transition from wood-powered electricity and the hospital’s pursuit of greener energy options.

“That’s a suicide pact with the planet,” Bergman said. Some members of the public also expressed skepticism with the proposal.
Neale Lunderville, president and chief executive officer of Vermont Gas Systems, expressed confidence that switching from natural gas to McNeil steam would dramatically reduce the carbon intensity of the energy used by the hospital.

The gas utility is involved in the project because it is under pressure to reduce the emissions from its sale of fossil fuels. Vermont Gas is trying to get customers to reduce their usage and switch to cleaner energy sources.

Not everyone agreed with Lunderville's assessment of the carbon intensity of McNeil steam.

“What a joke!” Williston resident Brian Forrest barked from the audience. Forrest later said the figures Lunderville cited ignored the carbon emissions from burning wood under what he called a flawed theory that biomass energy is carbon neutral.

The presentation revealed the scale of the incentives the electric department would potentially offer to the Burlington District Energy System, the nonprofit collaborative that would build the system and deliver the steam to the hospital. A draft term sheet shared with the council calls for the electric department to pay the nonprofit $665,000 per year to assist with the cost of converting buildings from natural gas to steam energy.

Darren Springer, the electric department's general manager, explained that his department offers a variety of incentives to encourage people to switch to more environmentally friendly forms of energy, such as discounts to customers who buy electric vehicles or install car chargers in their homes.

The electric department will pay the incentives as long as it receives credits from the state for helping the hospital switch from fossil fuel to a greener energy source.

Springer also repeatedly stressed that the project would use existing steam, not boost steam production, to serve the hospital.

"We are not looking to use more wood to meet the needs of this project," Springer said.

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