SoBu Council Supports F-35 Despite Strong Opposition at Noisy Meeting
Updated below with comment from Pam Mackenzie explaining her vote.
South Burlington grandmother Carmine Sargent, an opponent of the plan to base F-35 fighter jets at the airport near her home, lamented recently that so few of her neighbors were speaking out against the plane.
Dozens of them spoke out on Monday night.
Well over half of the 80-plus South Burlington residents addressing a special city council meeting urged the five-member body to reaffirm its earlier stand against the F-35 "bed-down." Despite those occasionally emotional pleas, the council voted 3-2 in support of the basing plan at the chaotic conclusion of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting in the Chamberlin School gymnasium initially attended by about 250 local residents.
A few of the roughly 150 attendees still present in the uncomfortably warm gym at 9:30 p.m. shouted objections as council chair Pam Mackenzie refused to explain her decisive vote on the divisive issue. Mackenzie also would not explain why she alone among the councilors declined to state the reasons for her vote.
Mackenzie sided with councilors Pat Nowak and Chris Shaw, both of whom had soundly defeated F-35 opponents in local elections in March. Council members Rosanne Greco and Helen Riehle opposed the basing plan.
Prior to voting "hell, no," Greco said she was "shocked" that her colleagues would want to bring the plane to South Burlington "after all we've heard tonight." Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, drew a standing ovation after declaring that "blind acceptance is not patriotism."
It appeared early in the evening that a majority of the audience shared the sentiments of Vermont political leaders and business interests who nearly unanimously favor bringing the F-35 to the Air Guard station at Burlington International Airport.
The first half-dozen speakers all expressed support for the plane. A couple of them deplored the "scare tactics" of opponents who have warned that the jet will cause hearing damage and "cognitive impairment" in children attending the Chamberlin School, which is situated a quarter-mile from the runways. Noting that they had raised children within earshot of the airport, some proponents said the roar of the F-16 fighters currently based at BTV caused no discomfort for their family members.
Backers of the F-35 also argued that hundreds of Vermont Air Guard jobs would be lost if the Air Force decides to base the plane elsewhere. Local business leaders such as Lisa Ventriss, director of the Vermont Business Roundtable, told the council that the Burlington area will suffer economically if the F-35 is not brought in to replace the aging fleet of F-16s.
But as the opposition slowly swelled, speaker after speaker decried the feared impact of a plane that the Air Force acknowledges is significantly noisier than the F-16. Neighborhoods abutting BTV have already been devastated by the din of airport operations, several opponents said, citing the federal government's purchase and demolition of scores of homes inside a high-noise zone deemed unfit for human habitation.
Those supporting the coming of the even-louder F-35 are engaged in "flagrant social and economic bias against our neighborhoods," said Barbara Sirvis, a South Burlington resident who served as president of Southern Vermont College.
Janice Schwartz, another opponent who lives near the airport, said, ""Thousands of people are being asked to sacrifice their financial future for a few business interests." Noting that it's mainly lower- and middle-income homeowners who live near the airport, Schwartz shouted, "We are not trash to be disposed of."
Eileen Bouvier added that "it's insulting and condescending" to be told by some F-35 advocates that those bothered by the airport noise should simply move away.
Another speaker recited the names of several residents whose homes have been bought and destroyed through the Federal Aviation Administration program. Punctuating his litany of displacement, this speaker said his grandchildren sometimes "wake up screaming" as the F-16 thunders overhead.
Higley Harmon, a beefy South Burlington school bus driver, said children at the Chamberlin School are "traumatized" by the F-16s. "They run to the bus, they sometimes fall down getting in the bus" as the planes scream on takeoff, the crew-cut driver recounted.
"Why would you vote to harm so many of your constituents?" speaker Mary Silverman asked the council as the vote drew hear.
Councilor Chris Shaw agreed that the home buy-outs are objectionable. "It breaks my heart," he said, but added that the effects of noise on residents should be considered an issue separate from the F-35 basing plan.
A few speakers urged the council to rescind its earlier opposition to the plane and instead adopt a position of neutrality. Those making this argument suggested the F-35 be brought to the airport for a few test flights so residents and politicians can better judge its noise level.
Others argued that the council should postpone action until hearing health professionals speak at a scheduled meeting Tuesday evening on the effects of aircraft noise on hearing and the cognitive development of children. Roddy O'Neil Cleary, minister emerita at the Burlington Unitarian Universalist Church, was among those calling for postponement of a council vote. Cleary also professed her pleasure at witnessing "this magnificent display of democracy" at the Chamberlin School.
Nicole Citro, the progenitor of the green ribbon campaign in support of the F-35, assured the council that "support is overwhelming" for the F-35 among Chittenden County residents. "They may not be here tonight," Citro conceded.
Asked after the meeting whether the council's vote represents a setback for the anti-F-35 coalition, Chris Hurd, one of its leaders, insisted, "We don't look at it that way. We look at what happened here as more fuel for our fire."
Update — Tuesday 5:15 p.m.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Council chairwoman Mackenzie explained why she voted to support the F-35 basing and why she didn't explain those reasons last night.
"There wasn't anything I was going to say that would be meaningful to the people there — the opponents," Mackenzie said. "There was no reason to feed into what would be a contentious response."
Mackenzie said she is not attending tonight's meeting on effects of aircraft noise on children, sponsored by F-35 opponents, because she's already arranged to visit homes in Butler Farms affected by flooding. It wasn't necessary to delay the council vote in order to hear comments from experts tonight, she said, because "enough of that information has already been forwarded to us."
As to why she voted yes, Mackenzie offered, "The primary reason I voted for the F-35 was jobs — to protect the Air Guard jobs."
Going forward, she said it will be essential to "set as a priority working with the neighborhoods affected by airport noise. Let's convene a conversation with the residents."
Mackenzie said she wants to involve the congressional delegation to see if South Burlington can qualify for development funds to build affordable housing in the city. She also wants to discuss with the Chittenden Regional Planning Commission the possibility of obtaining money for noise-mitigation initiatives. South Burlington will work also on developing a more collaborative relationship with the city of Burlington on airport issues, she added.