By THEO EMERY
WASHINGTON — For decades, the thunder of Vermont Air National Guard jets has been a noisy feature of life in the towns around Burlington, where the commercial airport also houses the 158th Fighter Wing, known as “The Green Mountain Boys.”
Now, the potential arrival of louder, new F-35 fighter jets that will replace the guard’s aging F-16 fleet is infuriating some residents and has brought growing scrutiny to the process that made the Burlington air base the planes’ likely destination.
The fight has grown steadily since 2010, when the Air Force said the Vermont base was a preferred site for F-35s among Air National Guard bases. A second location, Hill Air Force Base in Utah, was chosen from three active duty sites. In the fall, the Air Force is expected to decide where to base the jets. If Burlington is chosen, up to 24 planes will arrive sometime between 2015 and 2020.
The three members of the state’s Congressional delegation, as well as Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, support bringing the F-35s to the base. More than a thousand jobs in the state are supported by the Air National Guard. Supporters say the F-35s will ensure the base’s presence long into the future, and will cement Vermont’s role in securing the nation’s airspace.
But many residents say the planes would erode the quality of life in the area and threaten the health and safety of those living close to the airport, which is in South Burlington. And they argue that the Air Force is playing down the effect of the jets on those residents.
The clash heated up this spring after a Pentagon official, speaking anonymously, told The Boston Globe that a ranking of the bases had been “fudged” to increase Burlington’s score, although the official did not provide the numerical evidence.
A 2010 scoring chart provided to The New York Times showed that before the decision was announced, the base at Burlington received the lowest score of three guard finalists for the F-35s. But the Air Force said that those scores were discarded and Burlington was declared the preferred destination after more qualitative criteria were applied. Similarly, the base in Utah scored second in its field, according to the chart, but was declared the preferred combat base.
Critics have speculated whether politics informed the process. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat and the senior member of the Senate, is a chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus and a longtime advocate for the Air National Guard and its officers.
In one earlier scored assessment, when more bases were under consideration, Burlington received 91 points out of 100. But after a visit by Air Force officials, the score fell to 87.1, the number on the chart provided to The Times. McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina received an 87.4, and the Air National Guard base in Jacksonville, Fla., received a 91.
Rosanne Greco, a member of the South Burlington City Council who is a retired Air Force colonel and a critic of the F-35s, questioned the integrity of the process if the scores showed the Vermont base to be less desirable and that location was still selected.
“I don’t think this was a military decision. I think this was a political decision,” said Ms. Greco, who originally supported basing the F-35s in the state, but changed her mind after researching the issue.
In a statement, Mr. Leahy said the chart represented just “a snapshot in a lengthy process” without context. He said that if he thought the F-35s would “diminish our community or harm its people,” he would not support the plan.
“The process is complex and factors in many considerations” Mr. Leahy said. He also said he never sought to influence the selection process or was promised a particular outcome.
Col. Frank Freeman, who works for the deputy assistant secretary for installations, said the chart was prepared for a briefing to a review panel after the site visits. The panel rejected the presentation, though, and asked that the assessment be changed to include qualitative criteria that the numerical system did not reflect, like how easily the F-35s could be substituted for the F-16s already at the base.
That revised assessment was presented to the Air Force secretary, who selected Burlington as the preferred guard base and the site in Utah as the preferred active duty base, he said.
The decision to discard the numeric scoring was not to force a different outcome, but to make a more thorough assessment, Colonel Freeman said. He said that there was no effort to steer the planes to a specific destination, and that no pressure had been exerted on Pentagon officials.
“We realize in the gathering of data of this magnitude, we will have to make adjustments as we find new data, as we find out more information,” he said. “We have to have a deliberative process that can adjust and react to that new information. And that’s what we’re doing.”
In Burlington, the fight over the planes continues. Supporters of the Air Force’s plan wear green ribbons and adorn their car bumpers with stickers of an F-35 silhouette. Last week, opponents blasted sounds of jet engines outside the offices of the Burlington mayor and of the governor in Montpelier, the capital.
The airport is surrounded by neighborhoods in which about 200 empty homes have been deemed uninhabitable because of airplane noise, and the vacancies are expected to grow if the F-35s land there. A recently revised environmental analysis by the Air Force found that thousands more homes would be affected by F-35 noise.
Chris Hurd, a real estate agent in South Burlington and an F-35 opponent who organized the demonstration last week, said the decision to abandon the numeric scoring reflected “a murkiness to the process.”
“There are so many flaws in the information, and the lack of legitimacy and credibility of the information that’s been provided by the Air Force, that it frankly calls into question from our standpoint the legitimacy of the entire process,” he said.
Nicole Citro, an insurance agent in South Burlington who has marshaled F-35 support, said the undisclosed rankings did not change her opinion that the Vermont base was still best suited for the planes.
“To go through with a fine-tooth comb and look at every single piece of what made up that consideration — I don’t know,” she said. “We just know that our guys are the best of the best.”