Three Vermont Air National Guard officers (including Col. Joel Clark, right) sat silently at a Burlington City Council public hearing last night as speaker after speaker after speaker denounced the proposed basing here of the F-35 supersonic fighter jet.
Afterward, however, the local military brass expressed satisfaction with the council's decision to neither support nor oppose the bed-down at Burlington International Airport. Councilors instead voted unanimously, after a 90-minute debate and 90 minutes of public comments, to put questions to the U.S. Air Force regarding the F-35's potential impact on public health, real-estate values and the regional economy.
Mayor Miro Weinberger backed the successful resolution, which also calls for an F-35 to be brought to Burlington to demonstrate the degree of noise the plane produces.
Opponents turned out in force for a session some said might be of pivotal importance in influencing the Air Force's choice of where to base up to two dozen of the war planes. More than 30 speakers urged council members to take action against what a few described as a "weapon of mass destruction." Only three supporters of the F-35 made their views known during the hearing.
Arguments in opposition centered on the noise the plane would make (Liza Cowan, right). Several speakers warned that F-35 decibel levels would damage the area's housing market, making it difficult for potential buyers in the worst-affected zones, including about a dozen streets in Burlington, to get mortgages. Current home owners in those areas might likewise be unable to sell their properties, speakers said. The impact would be most severe in neighborhoods with relatively affordable homes, including most of Winooski and parts of Burlington and South Burlington, opponents maintained.
Some speakers focused on larger policy issues, such as the size and purposes of the Pentagon budget and the threat of "militarization" in a state with a large peace movement. Veteran antiwar activist Peggy Luhrs observed that the F-35 is an embodiment of "boyhood comic-book fantasies."
But Councilor Vince Brennan, a Ward 3 Progressive, agreed later in the meeting to remove from his resolution opposing the F-35 a series of critical references to U.S. military spending. That concession was not enough to persuade skeptics and opponents of Brennan's proposal. The council voted it down 8-5, with one member absent. One Democrat, Ward 5's Bram Kranichfeld, and one Independent, Sharon Bushor of Ward 1, joined the council's three Progressives — Brennan, Max Tracy (Ward 2) and Rachel Siegel (Ward 3) — on the affirmative side.
A resolution expressing support for the F-35 was rejected by a 9-4 margin. It had been sponsored by council Republican Vince Dober of Ward 7, a former member of the Vermont Air National Guard. Contending that the Burlington base lacks any future alternative to the F-35, Dober suggested that putting the plane elsewhere could cause the local Air Guard station to suffer the fate of the Plattsburgh Air Force base. It was shut down in 1995. And the economic effects of that closure are such that the city across the lake now "can't afford to buy rock salt," Dober said.
Realtor Ernie Pomerleau (pictured at table, right) and Chittenden County economic development official Frank Cioffi had earlier urged the council to endorse the bed-down of the F-35. They said it is essential to retain the 1100 jobs and $350 million payroll associated with the F-16 fighters currently stationed at the Vermont Air Guard base. Burlington also stands to lose $2.5 million worth of fire and rescue services that the Air Guard now provides for commercial as well as military aviation at the airport, Pomerleau said.
It was also noted that the entire Vermont political establishment — including the governor, the legislature and the three-member congressional delegation — has voiced support for the F-35. But the overwhelming opposition expressed at last night's public hearing pointed to a possible disconnect between representatives and a sizable portion of the represented.
Council President Joan Shannon, a Ward 5 Democrat and author of the successful resolution calling for further study of the F-35, wondered aloud, however, whether impassioned opposition "is necessarily the sentiment of a majority of Burlingtonians." A few other councilors also alluded to a possible silent majority in favor of the loud aircraft. Only a few residents of some wards have expressed any sort of opinion on the F-35, three councilors pointed out, and one of them — Ward 4 Democrat Bryan Aubin — suggested that localized opposition might reflect a "not in my backyard" perspective.
Ward 6 Independent Karen Paul said she found it odd that no one from the Vermont Air National Guard had offered comments during the hearing. Col. Joel Clark, vice-commander of the F-16 wing at the Burlington base, explained in an interview afterward that he had refrained from commenting out of reluctance to be seen as "lobbying" on the issue. Despite attending in dress uniform, Clark had sat inconspicuously throughout the session that attracted a standing-room crowd to Contois Auditorium.
Lt. Col. Dan Finnegan, an F-16 pilot wearing his flight suit, noted in the hallway following the meeting that he was "probably the only person in that room who has heard" the noise the F-35 makes on takeoff. Finnegan said he has flown a simulated version of the new plane and has also been present on the ground during actual flights.
The F-35 is "slightly louder" than the F-16, Finnegan reported, but, he added, "nowhere near" four times as noisy — a comparison cited by opponents based on an analysis of Air Force data.