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March 05, 2013

F-35 Foes Threaten Drive to Slash Airport Funding

Jim DumontLocal opponents of the F-35 are throttling up their campaign by petitioning for a cutoff of construction funds for Burlington International Airport if it agrees to host the fighter jets.

Activists began gathering signatures during Town Meeting Day voting today in support of a 2014 ballot initiative stating that "no more than one dollar may be spent for construction, equipment and improvement" at the airport in the event F-35s are based there.

Bristol attorney Jim Dumont, speaking on behalf of the plane’s opponents, argues that Burlington voters have the power to slash the airport’s budget. He bases that claim on a section of state law that requires local voters to approve the budget of a municipally owned airport. Burlington has apparently flouted this law for decades by not making airport funding contingent on direct approval by city voters, Dumont said at a news conference Tuesday morning at the Mater Christi School polling place.

City attorney Eileen Blackwood says Dumont has it wrong.

In a statement emailed to reporters on the evening prior to the press event, Blackwood said, “Burlington’s city charter trumps the general state law on this issue.” Burlington’s charter vests budget-making authority solely with the city council, she notes. Airport spending therefore could not be directly blocked by the city’s voters, Blackwood says.

Dumont (pictured) responded on Tuesday that it’s Blackwood who’s got it wrong.

“As lawyers know,” he said, a specific provision in state law prevails over a general local provision. And even if the interpretation of this point of law is ambiguous, “it’s good public policy to allow the public to vote,” Dumont adds.

It’s in Burlington officials’ own interest to prevent the F-35 from landing at BTV, he says. As the landlord of the airport, the city can be held liable for the actions of its tenant — in this case, the Vermont Air Guard in its operation of the F-35, the plane’s opponents maintain.

Because the roar of the F-35’s engines could cause the value of nearby residential properties to drop dramatically, Burlington faces “enormous potential liability” in the form of damage claims from hundreds of homeowners, Dumont says.

“The problems with Burlington Telecom are child’s play” compared to the losses the city might suffer if it gives the F-35 entrée to BTV, the lawyer declares. He suggests that Burlington taxpayers could wind up paying millions of dollars in compensation to Winooski homeowners who file damage claims for noise.

Tuesday’s press event was mainly symbolic, in that anti-F-35 activists say they’ll kick their petitioning drive into high gear only if the U.S. Air Force decides later this year to base the planes at BTV.

In that event, the campaigners would strive to gather the signatures of 5 percent of registered Burlington voters, with the aim of putting the airport-budget-cut item on the 2014 Town Meeting Day ballot.

File photo by Marcie Bolton

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