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Skeptics challenge Burlington to re-assess F-35's value

Aug. 13, 2013 - 03:47PM   |  
Vermont Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, speaks Monday night in favor of F-35 basing at the Vermont Air National Guard.
Vermont Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, speaks Monday night in favor of F-35 basing at the Vermont Air National Guard. (Joel Banner Baird / Free Press)
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BURLINGTON, VT. — Most, but not all of the Burlington residents who spoke during the public comments period at Monday night’s City Council meeting argued against the basing of advanced F-35 fighter planes at the Vermont Air National Guard.

Detractors of the “bed-down” proposal cited environmental, economic, legal, safety and health risks posed by the new warplane — and suggested that Burlington exercise caution in the face of those risks.

A failure to speak out against the action in advance of a final basing decision by the Pentagon could result in “a horrendous and irreparable mistake,” resident Paul Fleckenstein warned the council.

Basing proponent Stephen Gould countered that the local presence of America’s newest fighter would rightly honor the Air Guard.

That honor would come at the expense of, literally, “those who have the least amount of options and other resources” to press their claims, said Susie Taylor.

Several speakers urged the council, as the airport’s owner, to protect city residents from lawsuits that might stem from loss of property value and/or excess noise.

The Air Force has identified the Guard installation at Burlington International Airport as the preferred candidate for up to 24 of the aircraft and is expected to make a final decision on the matter later this fall.

If approved, the planes would replace the Guard’s F-16 fighters.

Evaluated purely on environmental criteria, the base at Burlington International Airport, in the heart of the state’s most thickly settled county, fared poorer than the competition in scoring by the Air Force.

But Vermont’s proximity to uncluttered air space, as well as proven local efficiencies in maintaining a fighter squadron, tipped the scales, said Air Guard Brig. Gen. Richard Harris last month.

Monday night’s public comments applied to no scheduled discussion or action by the City Council. Progressive councilors are considering a resolution that would be considered in early fall, said Councilor Max Tracy, P-Ward 2.

A resolution that would have proposed that Burlington withhold support for the local basing until attendant risks are better understood was withdrawn last week by sponsor Councilor Tom Ayres, D-Ward 7.

That resolution died for lack of support among his colleagues, Ayres said.

Skeptics of the plane’s value have introduced another tactic: As owner of the airport, Burlington might have a legally vulnerable “landlord status” — should downsides of the F-35 be successfully challenged.

Formalizing U.S. government liability for new fighter operations could be inserted into a soon-to-be-revised joint use agreement between the city and the Air Guard, according to Bristol-based attorney James Dumont.

Work on that updated document is nearly complete, Airport General Manager Gene Richards said Friday.

In South Burlington, the airport’s host city, councilors last month voted in favor of the F-35, reversing an earlier decision.

The Winooski City Council, meanwhile, voted unanimously in July to oppose the basing plan.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, along with Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have declared the plane to be important to the state’s economy.

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