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December 04, 2013

'It's Not Over,' F-35 Foes Insist as They Carry Fight to the Courts


The mood among F-35 opponents gathered in an Old North End conference room Tuesday evening contrasted starkly with the triumphalist atmosphere inside a Vermont Air Guard hangar earlier in the day.

About a dozen members of the Stop the F-35 Coalition sat glumly around a table a few hours after the state's political leaders and hundreds of uniformed Air Guard members cheered the decision to base 18 of the stealth fighter-bombers in Vermont beginning in 2020.

The activists who have fought the local basing option for more than four years were reluctant to discuss their next steps with a reporter. However, they agreed to offer responses to Tuesday's announcement prior to conducting a private strategy discussion.

Paul Fleckenstein, one of the coalition's leaders, characterized the Air Force's selection of the South Burlington base as "a victory for the one percent over thousands of people who will be severely impacted by this disastrous decision." Citing the role played by the Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders such as realtor Ernie Pomerleau, Fleckenstein added that Tuesday's announcement also heralded "a victory by real estate and commercial interests over the needs of working-class Vermonters.

"But it's not over," Fleckenstein vowed.

He expressed hope that court actions initiated by F-35 opponents could provide "a lot more exposure of how this decision was made." That might yet lead the Air Force to base the F-35 elsewhere, Fleckenstein said, suggesting "a lot can change in five to seven years."

The coalition will be battling on three fronts as the arena for the controversy shifts to the judicial system.

Bristol-based public-interest lawyer Jim Dumont said in a phone interview that the state's Environmental Court could rule early next year on the coalition's effort to require an Act 250 review of the F-35 basing plan. Opponents are arguing that an array of environmental issues, including what they say is the damaging health effects of the plane's noise, necessitate that the basing decision be evaluated in accordance with Vermont's omnibus land-use law.

The City of Burlington, which owns the airport where the F-35s would take off and land, is contending in the E-Court that Act 250 review is not required. Dumont says he filed a response on Tuesday to the city's motion calling for the coalition's case to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, the federal district court in Burlington is being asked to order the Air Force to release the "scoring sheets" used to rate various state Air Guard bases as potential hosts for the F-35. Dumont made that request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. In previously denying access to the scoring sheets for bases other than South Burlington's, the Air Force claimed that FOIA's provisions do not require it to divulge those data sets.

"We want to see the rest of the scores so we can better understand the basis of the decision," Dumont says. The sheet for the Vermont base shows, he adds, that the Air Force made "either a mistake or deliberate misstatement" in indicating there are "no homes in the high-noise zone or crash zone."

The Air Force also erred in its F-35 environmental impact statement by failing to list the number and types of properties that would be affected by noise from the jet, Dumont says. That is among the points he intends to raise in another federal suit that the coalition intends to file soon, the attorney notes. This legal action will challenge the basing decision as inconsistent with the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, Dumont says.

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