About three dozen Onion City residents made a big stink Thursday evening at the Winooski Welcome Center about the possible basing of F-35 war planes at Burlington International Airport. The Winooski contingent was part of a fired-up and mainly middle-aged audience that also included anti-F-35 activists from Burlington, Colchester and South Burlington.
One woman at the meeting called for the formation of "flash mobs at farmers' markets" to alert shoppers to the fighter jets' potentially ruinous impact on local property values. Another gray-haired woman suggested "chaining ourselves to where the planes take off" at BTV.
Attendees were exhorted to post comments on the Air Force's F-35 environmental-impact statement before its June 20 deadline. The group is organizing an evening rush-hour rally at the Winooski roundabout on June 14 and is planning to lobby both the Winooski and Burlington city councils. South Burlington councilors recently voted 4-1 against basing the supersonic plane in that community.
The most prevalent and vociferous objection brought up at the freewheeling, 90-minute meeting was the F-35s' potentially intolerable noise. Speakers posed the possibility that owners of homes within the war planes' 65-decibel contours will be unable to sell and move away because banks will decline to give mortgages to prospective buyers.
Attorney Jimmy Leas (pictured at right) told the crowd that if the F-35 starts flying from the Burlington Air Guard station, half the houses in Winooski would experience noise in excess of federal health standards. A noise contour map included in the environmental-impact statement indicates that homes along several streets in Burlington near Shemanski Park would also be subjected to roars and booms above the 65-decibel level. More than 100 South Burlington homes are already being purchased and destroyed through a federal program because they stand in a zone where airport noise already reaches 65 decibels and higher.
"Supporters are using scare tactics about losing jobs" if the F-35 doesn't come to Vermont, warned one Winooski resident. "We should use the scare tactic about losing our homes" if the F-35 does arrive, she added.
The planes would cause substantial collateral damage in all of Winooski, Andreoli predicted. "Think about our beautiful downtown — $175 million and 10 years in the making," she said. "This is our renaissance. This is our home; we have to fight for it."
Meeting attendees criticized Vermont's congressional delegates, along with Gov. Peter Shumlin, for favoring the "bed-down" at BTV of up to two dozen of the planes, described by some opponents as weapons of mass destruction. Michael Mahoney of Winooski urged listeners to "make these politicians feel uncomfortable." Mahoney conjured a scenario whereby "instead of saying 'God bless Patrick Leahy' when one of these planes flies over, people will say 'God damn Patrick Leahy.'"
The F-35's environmental impact is only one of five criteria the Air Force is assessing as it decides whether to base the plane at the Burlington Air Guard station or at a second "preferred" site in Utah. Planners will weigh the candidate bases' suitability for the plane's mission, as well as the cost and capacity of the respective options. "Military judgement" is listed as an additional standard, which, one speaker suggested Thursday night, "might mean 'we'll put it wherever we feel like.'"
But, Attorney Leas declared, "the Air Force lied" in saying there are only five criteria. "There's actually a sixth the Air Force hasn't told us about yet — and that's public opposition," he said, urging opponents to make clear that the F-35 is unwelcome in Vermont.
Correction: An earlier version of this post inaccurately attributed the quote about "scare tactics" to Winooski resident Eileen Andreoli.
Photos by Kevin J. Kelley; Top: Roger Bourassa, a Winooski-born retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, speaks against the F-35.