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August 13, 2013

Passions Flare on a Summer's Night as Locals Debate the F-35 — Again

F35 005State Rep. Kurt Wright criticized ice-cream baron Ben Cohen, who in turn had indirectly accused Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger of lying.

And so it went at Monday night's speak-out on the proposed basing of the F-35 warplane at Burlington International Airport. The Burlington City Council meeting drew a placard-holding, finger-wiggling, standing-room crowd that generated almost two hours of public comments — to which city officials listened but did not respond.

Ward 7 Democrat Tom Ayres had earlier withdrawn a resolution that would have postponed a council decision on stationing the fighter jet at Burlington's city-owned airport. Ayres said private conversations had indicated that his proposal lacked support "across the spectrum."

The council's Progressives dissed the resolution because it did not explicitly oppose basing the F-35 at the airport. Democrats, who form the largest bloc on the council, had declined last year to oppose local basing, instead passing a resolution that amounted to a slightly weaker version of Ayres' aborted proposal. Ayres said during a meeting recess that council Dems, including himself, remain unwilling to go on record against local bed-down of the stealth fighter.

Speaker after speaker sounded familiar themes Monday night as the two sides clashed in their third showdown at a local city council in the past six weeks. Winooski's council voted 4-0 against the BTV basing option, while South Burlington's council reversed its earlier opposition and passed a resolution on a 3-2 vote in support of the planes.

But the stakes are potentially higher in Burlington, which owns the airport.

F35 002Jim Dumont (right), an attorney representing the Stop the F-35 coalition, told the council that the city could be liable for "tens of millions of dollars" in damages due to health problems and financial losses that he said the F-35 will cause. Burlington will likely be the target of court actions by area residents because the Vermont Air Guard and the U.S. Air Force enjoy immunity from lawsuits, Dumont said.

The city serves as landlord to the Air Guard, noted F-35 opponent Paul Fleckenstein. "Use your power" to prevent that tenant from causing widespread disturbances, Fleckenstein urged the council.

Opponents, who outnumbered supporters 32-5 on Monday night, offered arguments that were alternately analytical and emotional. Their objections focused on the F-35's impact on public health and safety, local real-estate values, environmental quality and "brown-skinned people" in other countries who would be on the receiving end of the plane's payloads. One proponent responded to the other side's expressed concerns about the plane's health effects on children by suggesting, "If we want to keep our children safe, keep them off the runways."

The roar of the planes will place hundreds of additional homes in a zone that federal authorities already deem unfit for human habitation, several speakers warned. Two of them drew comparisons between ravaged, bankrupt Detroit and the South Burlington neighborhood adjoining the airport, where scores of homes have been demolished or are sitting vacant as a result of a federal buy-out program keyed to noise pollution.

"Shame on Burlington and shame on the airport for what has been done to my home and to my neighbors' homes," declared Carmine "Gramma" Sargent, a leader of the Stop the F-35 movement who lives about 100 yards from BTV's parking garage.

State Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, said in a written statement that he feared the risk of the plane crashing in a densely populated area.

F35 001Cohen (speaking at right) said the Air Force has acknowledged that noise produced by the F-35 cannot be mitigated in the Burlington area. "Continuing to talk about noise mitigation is a lie," Cohen declared. He suggested that other statements by Weinberger related to the F-35 are also untrue.

The Ben & Jerry's co-founder's comments prompted Wright, a New North End Republican, to congratulate Weinberger on his "rock-solid support" for bringing the plane to BTV. And Wright took issue with "someone who made a lot of money on ice cream saying if anyone disagrees with him, they're lying."

Nicole Citro, an Essex Junction resident who launched the green ribbon campaign in support of local basing, acknowledged the "passionate commitment" of those opposed to the plane. But she advised the council: "You cannot allow that passion to negate what the will of the majority is." Citro said 10,248 postcards in support of local basing had been mailed to Air Force reviewers.

She also added some perspective to the debate by noting that even if BTV is selected as host, the F-35 will not arrive until 2020, at the earliest.

But that timeline is unlikely to have a mellowing effect on the current conflict over the plane. The Burlington City Council will likely revisit the issue in September. That's when Ward 2 councilor Max Tracy says he and his fellow Progressives plan to offer a resolution in opposition to the basing plan.


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