Vt. City Fights Planned F-35 Jet Testing That Would Make 1,000+ Homes "Incompatible with Residential Use"

News & Politics

Faced with the community-damaging possibility of the U.S. Air Force basing its soon-to-be-tested F-35 nuclear capable fighter bomber at the Burlington Airport in their city, South Burlington’s City Councilors have once again expressed carefully and coherently argued opposition to the plan that the Air Force’s own study found would render more than a thousand nearby homes “incompatible with residential use.” 

The impact of an F-35 base would, by the Air Force’s own calculation, destroy houses and displace people on a scale akin to a military campaign.  Of all its proposed basing options, the Air Force acknowledges that by far the most damaging civilian impact would be felt by South Burlington and Winooski. 

With that level of destruction in mind, together with the reality that it would fall, like class warfare, on the less well off, the city council has stated its determination to defend its community and its residents “against industrial, military, and political interests,” against what some have called vulture capitalism.

In response to two recent pro-F-35 petitions from regional business groups, the city council met November 23 and voted 4-0 with one member absent to approve similar three-page, single-spaced, analytical responses to the two sets of petitioners, the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (largely unaffected by the air base) and Business Development of Montpelier (the state capitol, some 35 miles away) .  

City Affirms Position From Six Months Ago

This new vote in effect affirmed the council’s earlier vote in May 2012, when it met with Air Force representatives who didn’t answer some of their most substantive questions.  The vote in May was 4-1, with recently-elected councilor Pam Mackenzie voting to support the F-35.  The daughter of an Air Force serviceman, Mackenzie’s job with Comcast brought her to Vermont in 2009.  She was electedto a two-year council term in March, winning by two votes, with 36.8% of the vote in a three-way race that ended with a recount.

She was the only absent city councilor on November 23, although one other participated by phone.  The council president is retired Air Force colonel Rosanne Greco who was for years a Pentagon planner and who has identified errors in the Air Force environmental impact statement.  She and others have sought the scoring sheets that led to the errors, but the Air Force and the Vermont Congressional delegation have so far stonewalled their fellow government officials on sharing information on which the F-35 basing decision could be based.

The city council’s letter responds point-by-point to the text of the petition from the Burlington group (the Montpelier group did not provide the council with the text of its petition). 

Citing passages in the Air Force report (the petition used only the summary), the South Burlington response rebuts the petition on issues of noise, protection of children, operations activity, and air pollution – all of which the petition erroneously minimized.

Why Shouldn’t South Burlington Be Sacrificed?

On “Safety” the petition quotes the summary that “the risks of a mishap are not expected to increase substantially,” a conclusion reached in the context of projecting the life of the F-35 compared to the life of the older F-22 (one of which crashed this month, after the petition was written).

This misses the point, as the city council points out – that South Burlington would be exchanging the risks of a mature aircraft, the F-16, for the risks of an untested new craft going through its testing period, usually the most dangerous period of an aircraft’s useful life. 

Similarly, the petition seriously overstates the economic gains likely to be had from the F-35 basing.  The Air Force study estimates these benefits as “none” under its first scenario and “minor” under its second scenario.

What the economic argument fails to make clear is that such gains as there might be and what benefits as there are tend to be spread across the region, while the risks and costs tend to be concentrated in South Burlington and other proximate communities. 

Rejecting Class Warfare is Truly Democratic 

In concluding its letter, the city council confronted the arrogance and pressure tactics of supporters of the F-35, as well as their willingness to use coercion and fear where they don’t have arguments or facts.  The petition was misleadingly titled “Save the Guard,” when its clear intent was “Sacrifice South Burlington,” in response to which the council wrote: 

Your petition stated, “the So Burlington Council’s position is wrong.”  We do not believe that it is ever wrong to speak up for our residents and our community.  The majority of the people who would be directly affected by the basing of the F-35A are of moderate to low income (the average Vermonter).  These people are at a distinct disadvantage compared to those who support the F-35A.  The F-35A proponents have far more financial and organizational resources than individuals or communities.  If we do not speak up for the average resident, who will?  This is what we have done, and what we will continue to do, even if it means going up against industrial, military, and political interests. 

We support the Vermont National Guard, and are willing to work to continue their presence in our area.  However, that does not mean we support basing the F-35A weapon system in South Burlington.  We believe the best way to “Save the Guard” is to insure their operations are compatible with the surrounding community and region. 

When the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation announced its petition in October, with an alleged 10,000-plus signatures, media coverage was as widespread as it was uncritical, and bereft of opposing points of view. 

Vermont media have all but ignored the official response of the City Of South Burlington, except for the Burlington Free Press which reported the decision three days later, in a story by John Briggs, who emphasizes the noise issue at the expense of housing, health, safety or any other issue cited by the city.    

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