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Fighter Flight: Will the New F-35 Noise Report Become a Political Bombshell?

Fair Game


Published June 5, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

That Chittenden County is growing ain’t exactly breaking news. But a report issued late last week by the Air Force sheds new light on what that growth means for a proposal to base next-generation fighter jets in South Burlington.

The short story? If the Air Force picks the Vermont Air National Guard to host a squadron of F-35s, plenty more people will be exposed to high levels of noise than the Pentagon previously acknowledged.

Now the question is whether the new data will influence the debate in Vermont and Washington, D.C. — or if both sides are too entrenched to change their minds.

In a previous draft of its environmental-impact statement, the Air Force relied on census data from the year 2000 to determine how many households would be exposed to noise levels the Air Force considers incompatible with residential use if the Vermont Guard traded its F-16s for louder F-35s. When supporters and detractors complained about the age of the data, the Air Force agreed to update its estimates using 2010 figures.

The result? While Chittenden County’s population increased by 7 percent in that decade, the number of people living in close proximity to the air base grew by almost 20 percent, the Air Force report now indicates.

That means if 18 F-35s come to Vermont, the high-noise zone would encompass 6663 people instead of 4602 — a 44 percent increase. Twenty-four planes would expand the zone to 7719 people — a 67 percent increase.

More problematic for F-35 supporters: The latest report indicates that McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, S.C., is now the Air Force’s preferred environmental pick, though Burlington still comes in first place overall.

To the plane’s loudest opponents, the new figures serve as confirmation of what they’ve been saying all along: The arrival of F-35s would be worse than advertised.

“This is a staggering number of people that would be impacted,” says South Burlington City Councilor Rosanne Greco, a former Air Force colonel. “It doesn’t make sense to have 8000 people out there suffering financial, perhaps health-related and certainly quality-of-life impacts. And for what?”

“The impacted people are already impacted,” counters Frank Cioffi, a prominent F-35 supporter and president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation. Noting that much of the population growth near the airport is attributable to development in downtown Winooski, he says, “I don’t see them running away. People aren’t suffering health impacts. Developers are investing in the redevelopment of downtown Winooski.”

While the responses from activists are predictable, what remains unclear is which camp is winning the hearts and minds of Chittenden County residents. That’s a hugely important political question, given that the county makes up a quarter of the state’s population — and that Vermont’s most prominent politicians have lined up in favor of the F-35.

“I don’t think the opposition is growing at all,” Cioffi contends. “They’ve got Ben Cohen and a couple other people stirring things up, but we don’t see their numbers growing.”

To that, South Burlington real estate agent Christopher Hurd says, “Frank Cioffi is completely full of shit. It’s completely mainstream.”

As evidence, Hurd points to a rally he and fellow opponents held at Burlington’s Unitarian Universalist church last Thursday, which drew a capacity crowd of hundreds. Among those addressing the group was Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek synagogue.

“My sense is [opposition to the plane] is growing. I’m hearing from more and more people,” says Chasan, who first came out against the basing last fall along with several other area clergy members. “I think people are waking up to how unfair this whole process has been.”

Even the Burlington Free Press is getting in on the action — in its own peculiar way. In last Friday’s paper, editorial page editor Aki Soga beat the Freeps-ian drum for “transparency,” writing that “information must be made available” to the public before the Air Force makes its decision this fall — without specifying precisely what information the paper sought.

On Tuesday, the Freeps cleared that up in its news pages. In what was ostensibly a news story, staff writer John Briggs reported that the Freeps had sent Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger 13 questions related to the F-35 basing process. But rather than waiting for the pols to respond — or not — by the paper’s self-imposed June 12 deadline, it simply printed the questions verbatim.

Briggs’ original web headline? “Free Press asks pointed questions about F-35 support.” In later versions, the paper humbly dropped the word “pointed.”

Whether or not the delegation, governor and mayor respond to the Freeps’ questions, it’s pretty clear where they stand. Within hours of the release of Friday’s 2500-page tome, the delegation and governor released a joint statement reiterating their support and saying “there appear to be no fundamental changes in this updated report.”

“What I’ve seen of it, there’s nothing that changes my mind,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a follow-up interview Tuesday. “It appears to me they’re being very fair and very open to everybody.”

Referring to his house in McLean, Va., Leahy intimated that the Vermont Guard’s six minutes of daily take-off and landing time isn’t all that much.

“I’m in Washington in a home in the flight path of [Reagan National Airport],” Leahy said. “I’d love to have it limited to five minutes and 20 seconds a day.”

While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did not respond to a request for comment, the third member of the delegation, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) struck a more nuanced tone than Leahy about the new Air Force report.

“It does affect more people, so I have empathy. I respect the fact that there are a lot of people who would be directly affected by the flight path,” Welch said, calling the decision “a trade-off” between those who live near the base and those who depend on it for jobs. “I think it suggests a redoubling of efforts by the Air Guard to work with them on mitigation efforts.”

Added Shumlin, “My opinion on the F-35 has not changed … All I can tell you is my support for the F-35 is based upon the thousands of jobs it creates.”

Damage Control

Will Gov. Peter Shumlin’s very public dispute with an East Montpelier neighbor cause lasting damage to his political career?

According to a number of Vermont political insiders, the answer depends on how quickly he can bring the saga to a close.

“It’s unfortunate the way it played out,” says Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), a Shumlin ally who says he’s counseled the governor on the matter. “The thing he has to do now is move ahead as quickly as possible and do whatever has to happen: Make a deal and move on.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the top-ranking Republican in the state, agrees.

“If new information arose, I certainly think it could leave Gov. Shumlin vulnerable in certain areas — but that’s a big ‘if,’” Scott says. “If nothing else happens and nothing new comes out, I think he weathers the storm.”

Unfortunately for Shumlin, the situation remains pretty messy — and decidedly unresolved. Until he can change that, political rivals and reporters with no legislative session or election to cover will keep churning the waters.

For those just joining us, here’s a quick recap of the spot Shummy’s in: Last fall, the gov cut a quickie land deal with an ex-con neighbor who was just days away from losing his property to a tax sale, thanks to a $17,000 tax bill he couldn’t pay. Last month the neighbor, Jeremy Dodge, told reporters he’d been fleeced, claiming he didn’t have the mental capacity to negotiate with the gov — especially without a lawyer representing him — and didn’t get a fair price.

Shumlin, meanwhile, says he was doing Dodge a solid by letting his neighbor stay in his home for nine months and restoring the guy’s electricity. Once reporters came calling, he said he’d be happy to renegotiate with Dodge — and he’d even pay his neighbor’s attorney’s fees.

So what’s next?

As VTDigger’s Andrew Stein reported Monday, both sides have “lawyered up.” Shumlin has engaged the services of former attorney general Jerome Diamond to represent him, while Dodge was scheduled to meet with Vermont Legal Aid as Seven Days went to press.

Drip, drip, drip.

Asked Tuesday how he hoped to resolve the matter, Dodge told Seven Days, “My goal is to get my property back and pay the governor back what he invested in it — and not a penny more.”

Asked if he’d instead settle for a heftier payment than the $58,000 the gov promised for his 16 acres, Dodge said, “No, I would rather keep it for myself.”

And if the gov doesn’t sell it back, would he sue?

“Oh yeah,” Dodge said. “That would be one of the options that would be on the table.”

Dodge added that while he used to consider Shumlin “an all-right guy,” he’s become upset with the governor’s frequent mentions of his criminal record in interviews with the press.

“He’s bringing out all this slander against me and making me look like a bad guy,” Dodge said of the governor. “He isn’t perfect. He’s got skeletons in his closet somewhere, and I’m going to find them.”

Shumlin said Tuesday he wouldn’t comment on Dodge’s remarks, other than to say, “I’m looking forward to having a conversation with Jerry and his family.”

Drip, drip, drip.

Adding to the governor’s problems: Two of his political opponents — Reps. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) and Patti Komline (R-Dorset) — plan to hold a Statehouse press conference Wednesday afternoon to outline a policy proposal they say will touch on the controversy.

Meanwhile, Vermont Republican Party chairman Jack Lindley, who has thus far kept uncharacteristically quiet about it, said Monday, “His actions were wildly inappropriate and obviously show an ethical lapse and a lack of moral compass.”

But for Shumlin to be in real political peril, he’d have to have a real political opponent waiting in the wings. So far, he doesn’t.

His greatest threat — Scott, the well-known and well-liked lite gov — reconfirmed Monday that he’s not interested in running for Vermont’s top job, saying, “At this point in time, there’s nothing I see that would open the door for me.”

Former state senator Randy Brock, a Swanton Republican who lost to Shumlin in 2012, has “made no decisions whatsoever about running for anything,” he says. “It’s far too early.”

But he notes that during the campaign, “I did focus on the governor’s real-estate transactions, and this is one of the transactions I mentioned.”

Given how Shumlin irked liberals during the last legislative session, could he expect a challenge from the left?

“He certainly makes it very hard for us to stay out of the race, I will say that,” says Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), who chairs the House Progressive Caucus. “But it’s hard for us to raise big amounts of money for a statewide effort. It really is.”

And then there’s the question of which Prog would stand a chance. Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) came in second during the 2008 gubernatorial race, but even he concedes the challenge would be a fool’s errand. “People will forgive and forget,” Pollina says. “I don’t think this should inspire somebody to run for governor against an incumbent.”

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.