Burlington Residents Vote to Cancel F-35 basing as VTANG Prepares for Transition

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Thursday March 15, 2018

Burlington’s F-35 ballot item

On Tuesday, March 6, Burlington voters passed an advisory ballot item asking their city council to request the cancellation of the Vermont Air National Guard’s (VTANG) basing of F-35 fighter jets scheduled to arrive in the fall of 2019 to replace the F-16 aircraft. Ballot item No. 6 asked, “Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,’ advise the City Council to: 1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and 2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?” The item passed 6,482 to 5,237, a 55 percent margin.

The item made it onto the ballot due to the efforts of Save Our Skies, an activist group opposed to the F-35 basing because of its impacts on health, safety, property values, and affordable housing.

South Burlington resident Rosanne Greco has been a strong and constant voice in opposition to the basing. Greco served as an Air Force colonel for almost 30 years but has openly disapproved the basing of the F-35 due to community concerns. She chaired the South Burlington City Council when it voted 4-1 in opposition to the basing in 2012; the vote was flipped the following year 3-2 in support of the basing.

“Once again the people have spoken out against the F-35 basing.” Greco said, referencing Winooski’s vote against the basing years ago, and the outpouring of comments sent to the Air Force in opposition to the F-35 during the official comment period. “But what was most gratifying, was to see Burlingtonians voting for their neighbors in South Burlington and Winooski. F-35 noise would impact only a small area of Burlington, but its noise will affect 75% of Winooski and hundreds of homes in South Burlington.”

Recognizing that the ballot item is non-binding, she added: “Our biggest challenge is getting Burlington elected officials to carry out the wishes of the people.”

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has not commented on how council will proceed with the advisory request but has said that they will assess the information leading to this outcome.

VTANG prepares for F-35 arrival

Just prior to Town Meeting Day, at a March 1 press conference and tour of the base, Brig. Gen. Joel Clark reviewed VTANG’s transition plan and detailed the progress of construction projects underway to prepare for the scheduled arrival of the F-35s in late September or early October 2019.

Characterizing the verbiage used in the ballot item as somewhat misleading, Clark said, “It makes it sound like you can pick and choose which aircraft you want to get here in Vermont.” “That’s not how it works,” he explained. “We’ve seen how many years it takes to go through this process. I’ve seen in the paper the C-130 being mentioned as an alternative. But the Air Force is actually looking to reduce that number [of C-130s].”

So far, VTANG says it has spent $83 million in jobs, equipment, and construction in the F-35 conversion efforts. A final figure on cost for completion has not been released.

Opponents contest that only $4,690,000 of those costs are associated with the F-35, and that remaining costs are routine maintenance and upgrades regardless of the basing, Greco said.

VTANG reports they have spent thousands of hours working on the transition to the F-35. Three of the ten buildings included in the construction project are in the process of complete renovations. Of the 23 F-16s, eight of the fighter jets along with 150 of the airmen are currently at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas Valley, Nev. flying Red Air for training events at Red Flag I and Red Flag II. In the last 12 months, 29 guard members have been deployed overseas in support of ongoing operations.

Burlington will have the smallest footprint of the F-35’s three operational bases, with a total of 18 F-35s. Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska will have 72 and 48, respectively. The United States Air Force F-35A Beddown Plan through 2021 lists a total of 324 F-35s dispersed amongst the operational bases, two training bases, and two test bases. There are over 265 F-35s currently in operation.

“It has been flying for 12 years and amassed over 120,000 flying hours operating at 14 bases around the world,” explained Lt. Col. Daniel Finnegan, Wings plans officer and instructor pilot. He estimates airmen will each accrue about 150 hours of F-35 flight time per year. “When the first F-35 lands here in 18 months, we intend to be fully trained and equipped to receive it,” he said.

Noise

Clark confirmed that the community will be able to experience the sounds of an F-35 jet this calendar year prior to their official basing in South Burlington.

“In some aspects it’s louder, and in some aspects it’s quieter [than the F-16s]. They are very similar, and we’ll continue to mitigate the noise to the max extent we can,” he added.

In the meantime, the Burlington International Airport is working with municipalities and other stakeholders on updating the Noise Compatibility Program (NCP), which is part of a larger federal regulation known as the Part 150 Study. The Noise Compatibility Program is the conduit in which the community can receive new land use measures to help mitigate the effects of aviation noise.

The current NCP is approved for land acquisition and relocation, but a Noise Compatibility Program Technical Advisory Committee—which is comprised of airport officials, Vermont Air National Guard/Army National Guard officials, city representatives and two South Burlington residents who served on the Chamberlin Neighborhood Airport Planning Committee—are exploring more options. They are studying topics such as a Residential Sound Insulation Program, sales assistance/purchase assurance, real estate disclosure, easement acquisition, and sound barriers/buffers.

Also under the Part 150 Study are the Noise Exposure Maps (NEM), computer-modulated maps that display average levels of sound illustrated by contours. The airport attempted to submit a grant for an updated map with F-35 data before the end of the last fiscal year in September 2017, but it was denied by the FAA. Nicolas Longo, the airport’s deputy director of aviation administration, mentioned at a technical advisory committee meeting in December that the request could be submitted again in concurrence with the Noise Compatibility Plan update.

The most recent technical advisory committee meeting was held March 13, and the next meeting will be in May. The Vermont Air National Guard also said it is planning more updates as the arrival date approaches.

What’s next?

For the activists looking to reverse the decision before the arrival of the F-35s, the fight is not over yet.

“It is not too late to stop the basing of the F-35,” Greco said. “The basing was a political decision made by Senator Leahy. He can easily reverse it and direct the Air Force to assign a military aircraft that is compatible with a civilian residential area, such as ours. Citizens, including senators, in six other states have been successful in getting the military to cancel or change basing decisions, sometimes even after the aircraft have arrived.”

In the meantime, the F-16 mission is effectively winding down.

“The Secretary of the Air Force made her decision,” Col. Henry Harder said at the press conference. “As you can see, we’ve put a lot of effort toward that decision. So the proud men and women of the Vermont Air National Guard are getting ready for the F-35…. That’s our sole focus.”

 

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent