Is the Vermont Air National Guard being used for corrupt purposes having nothing to do with its military mission? The answer is yes. Big time. And for big money. In the article, “Those who 'Fudged' Should not be Allowed to Judge” we described how military brass fudged their own scoring process to get Senator Leahy’s home state of Vermont on the list as the “preferred alternative” for basing the F-35. We know who loses: thousands of Vermonters whose homes are in noise and crash zones. This article will follow the money to see who benefits from the corrupt practices of the military brass who fudged.
The developers who stand to gain the big money did not have to invest their own dollars to position themselves. They got the taxpayers to do that for them. The City of Burlington applied for and received a federal grant of $40 million to buy 200 families out of their affordable homes near the airport entrance, and the City now holds title to most of those homes. 55 have so far been demolished. Another hundred homes stand vacant awaiting demolition. Other homes are awaiting purchase for demolition.
The federal government put up the money to buy those 200 homes as "mitigation" for noise being made by the F-16 jet fighter currently flown by the Vermont Air National Guard at the local Burlington International Airport. The 200 homes are in a zone that is being blasted by a noise level from the F-16 jets that the federal government considers so loud that their neighborhood is “unsuitable for residential use.” A report about Burlington International Airport prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration (the “FAA report”) says that “land acquisition and relocation is the only alternative that would eliminate the residential incompatibility” with that noise level (page 29).
Certain Vermont officials, including Senator Leahy and Governor Shumlin, continue to repeatedly suggest that the F-35, which the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says is more than four times louder than the F-16, would be fine for thousands more Vermont families who live in affordable neighborhoods of Winooski, Burlington, Williston, and South Burlington Vermont. The Air Force draft EIS says the F-35 would put 3410 homes within that same noise contour that the federal government considers “unsuitable for residential use.”
But here is how the developers stand to make their millions: according to a chart in the FAA report (page 6), different land uses have different federally mandated noise limits. Noise levels that make a home “unsuitable for residential use” are perfectly fine for commercial and industrial use. This may be because residential use generally involves children going out to play, open windows during spring, summer, and fall, family conversation, and sleeping. Hotels and other commercial buildings may have permanently closed windows and incorporate other measures in design and construction to achieve substantial sound reduction. This difference in FAA mandated noise limits is what the big money people will exploit.
The FAA report indicates that the land left after the homes are demolished within the high noise contours is not scheduled to be left as green space. Taking into account the fact that land unsuitable for residential use can still be used for commercial and industrial activity, the FAA report calls for adoption of a “Reuse Plan.” In fact, the FAA report says, “preparation of a property reuse plan is an FAA grant requirement.” Thus, the affordable residential properties the City of Burlington acquired with $40 million of federal funds in South Burlington are officially being demolished for the purpose of making the land available for the non-residential commercial reuses.
The emptied land from those 200 families is being eyed by certain developers who stand to make lots of money by putting up commercial buildings near the airport entrance—similar to the commercial development one sees at other airports. The president of one of the state's biggest commercial developers, Ernie Pomerleau, is a member of the Airport Strategic Planning Committee. Its meetings openly discuss things like building hotels and other commercial real estate on land next to the airport that used to be a thriving community of tiny affordable homes. In an interview on WPTZ TV on June 6, 2013 Pomerleau said, “"Should there be a hotel? Yea, if it works for Burlington and South Burlington I would fully encourage that."
Vermont Air Guard vastly increased F-16 noise
Commercial flights had nothing to do with driving out the 200 families. The Air Force draft EIS states that “The contribution of civilian aircraft is negligible compared to the military aircraft contribution” to Burlington airport noise (page BR4-21). In the neighborhood near the airport entrance, the major component of F-16 noise comes from the use of the afterburner by F-16s for routine takeoffs.
Routine afterburner use on takeoff was not required with the original configuration of the F-16. Only when the Vermont Air Guard switched from an external fuel tank located under the fuselage to tanks mounted under the wings did pilots find that they needed to use the afterburner for takeoff.
The F-16 fuel tanks, the afterburner, the noise, and federal funds were all methodically and smoothly used to remove the two hundred families living peacefully in affordable homes. Without any hearing, a thriving community of affordable homes was destroyed in favor of the Vermont Air Guard changing the position of its external fuel tank—and in favor of making this consolidated acreage available to commercial developers.
The only remaining obstacle between those developers and giant profits is the level of South Burlington City government willingness to rezone the newly vacated land from residential to commercial.
Buying an election in Vermont
Just in time to push that rezoning for commercial development, heavily moneyed interests recently formed a political action committee (PAC) and spent an unprecedented amount to almost literally purchase seats on the South Burlington City Council for two pro-developer candidates in the March 2013 election. While the amount spent was among the highest ever to buy a city council seat in Vermont, it is a tiny fraction of the projected gain developers can expect from redeveloping the land when the remaining houses are torn down and Burlington makes the land available to the commercial developers.
The Air Force says the F-35 is more than four times louder than the F-16. Just as F-16 noise was vastly increased and harnessed to acquire federal money for use to eliminate residential neighborhoods and make their valuable real estate near the airport entrance available to commercial developers, F-35 noise might in another way work magic for the developers: to facilitate major airport expansion goals. The F-35 is so loud that any amount of noise from the goal of doubling commercial jet traffic will be totally negligible compared to the F-35 noise. Just as the shift in the F-16’s external fuel tanks and routine afterburner use is now being leveraged to remove housing near the airport entrance for commercial development, continued massive military jet noise from the F-35 can be leveraged for ambitious airport expansion to pass zoning and Vermont environmental review.
The fudge reported by the Boston Globe may only be the frosting on the cake.
The ones who "fudge" should not be the ones to judge
With thousands of Vermont families and their homes at risk, with the integrity of the Air Force basing process undermined, with questions swirling about whether facts or political influence drives the basing decision, and with personal gain by a certain commercial developer an underlying factor, an independent and impartial investigation is needed to determine whether the numbers were fudged, and if so by whom and at whose behest. If indeed numbers were fudged, the Pentagon officials who fudged should not be allowed to continue to be the ones to make the final decision. And they should be prosecuted.
No more tricks--the process was fixed, the F-35 should be nixed
If fudging was essential for Burlington to come out on top, that alone should be enough to stop the process. Honest Vermont public officials and the Vermont Air National Guard should now join with local residents and Burlington area clergy in asking the Air Force to skip Burlington for the first F-35 basing round.
But we can have no confidence in view of a money-soaked scheme by which noise zones are being put to use to drive personal gain for rich commercial developers while thousands more families in affordable homes are being put at risk.
Now is the time to build a national grass roots movement demanding an immediate halt in any plan to base the F-35 in Burlington or anywhere else and to call for canceling the entire F-35 program.