Activists fight to keep F-35s from BTV skies

Joey Waldinger, Assistant News Editor

The controversy over the placement of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport forced a Burlington City council meeting to take place Jan. 29.

The jets would replace the current F-16s and are opposed by activist group Save Our Skies, who say they would pose health risks. The council will decide if the issue should be on the Town Meeting Day ballot.

The vote would appear as a non-binding question, which means the city council would not have to act in accordance with how citizens vote, said James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer and activist with Save Our Skies. 

Several Vermont politicians endorse basing the jets in Burlington, including Mayor Miro Weinberger. Basing the F-35s in Burlington ensures the continuation of the Vermont Air National Guard and the survival of approximately 1,000 jobs, stated Weinberger in a Jan. 25 email.

The city council’s failure to put the issue on the ballot would be a mistake, said Save Our Skies activist and UVM alum Julie Macuga ’17.

“It would be denying people the right to speak about their own livelihoods,” she said.  

The decision to choose Burlington was made through the Air National Guard, not at the local level, Weinberger stated.

If the ballot item were to pass, the “city would need to review and evaluate the implications” of this vote on the numerous contracts tied to the Air Force’s decision, Weinberger stated.

He did not comment on whether the city would cancel the F-35 program.

Noise from the planes have been associated with hearing loss, stress, sleep disturbance, heart attacks, hypertension and stroke, and delayed reading and verbal comprehension, according to a 2013 Burlington Board of Health resolution.    

Motivated by health risks posed by the planes, Save Our Skies began organizing as early as 2009 after Burlington appeared on a list of potential cities to house the planes, Leas said.

While there would be no safety risks for children living under the airspace where the F-35s would fly, there would be disproportionate effects on low income individuals living near the base, according to the Air Force’s 2013 Environmental Impact Statement.

Efforts have been taken to shield residents from the noise.

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted the airport $14.5 million to buy homes from people most affected by the noise, and an additional $450,000 to explore alternatives to home buyouts, according to a Feb. 17 2017 VT Digger article.  

The airport is currently utilising a program that minimises noise pollution by using funds to improve insulation, air conditioning, and other measures, Weinberger stated.

But an FAA official said that other than home buyouts, little can be done to reduce the noise, according to the VT Digger article.

“The only solution to maintain the health and safety of our adults and children is to cancel the F-35s,” Leas said.  

Activists have been further upset by a perceived unwillingness of political leaders to hear their complaints, said Rosanne Greco, a former Air Force colonel and former chair of the South Burlington City Council.  

“They would never meet with those of us that had some concerns about the F-35 basing,” Greco said.   

After the Air Force released the EIS, a grassroots movement formed using demonstrations, letter writings, and other protests to oppose the F-35 basing, she said.  

“We were pretty much ignored,” Greco said.

Burlington residents had the opportunity to debate the issue at various city council meetings during 2013, including at a public forum attended by over 400 people, Weinberger stated.

“We even lost the vote on appeal,” Greco said, referring to a 2016 court case where she and other Chittenden County residents challenged the EIS findings.  

Now, Greco just wants the public to have a say in the matter, she said.

“I think this decision was made a long time ago, and I have not yet heard a compelling reason to reopen it,” Weinberger said in a Jan.19 VT Digger article.

“The F-35A is the future of the Air Force and important to the future of Vermont and to Vermont’s Air National Guard,” stated David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, in a Jan. 25 email.

 No matter what the City Council decides, Save Our Skies activists are determined to press on, Greco said.

“Lots and lots of people have been fighting this, going back to 2009,” she said. “We’re not about to give up.”