By SAM HEMINGWAY
The state’s largest city, as owner of Burlington International Airport, has the authority to stop the Air Force from basing F-35 fighter jets at the airport, a leader of a group opposed to the planes is arguing.
“Burlington owns the airport,” Chris Hurd of South said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon in downtown Burlington. “Burlington is the landlord. Burlington can tell its tenant not to base the F-35 at the airport.”
The Vermont Air National Guard leases space from the city at the airport and is in line to receive a squadron of the F-35s, pending a final decision by the Air Force this fall.
Hurd was one of 13 people associated with the Stop F-35 Coalition who spoke at the event, a kickoff for an effort by Progressive city councilors to win passage of a resolution opposed to basing the planes at the airport.
Burlington’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, who supports the F-35, said later he has doubts about the legal arguments that the F-35 opponents were making. He added that the city attorney is studying legal issues regarding the city’s liability as the airport’s owner and as the Air Guard’s landlord.
The speakers at Wednesday’s event on the steps of City Hall included several anti-F-35 activists, state Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, Reps. Joanna Cole and Suzi Wizowaty, both Burlington Democrats, and City Councilors Rachel Siegel and Vince Brennan, both Ward 3 Progressives.
Each speaker highlighted a concern listed in the proposed four-page resolution. The concerns included noise and environmental problems, impact on property values, potential harm to children and fears of F-35 crashes near the airport.
Siegel said data extrapolated from the Air Force’s environmental impact statement and from National Transportation Safety Board reports show that F-35s pose a significant crash threat.
“The F-35 is 42,000 times more likely to crash in its first two years here than a commercial airplane,” Siegel said, adding that her statement was based on research by F-35 opponents, including South Burlington attorney James Marc Leas.
Leas, asked to explain how he came up with the crash-rate projections, said he extrapolated data on crash incidents for other fighter jets, particularly during their first two years of flight.
Vermont National Guard Brig. Gen Richard Harris, reached for comment regarding the crash-rate issue later Wednesday, said the Air Guard’s flying of F-35s is several years away, even if the Air Force decides this fall to base the planes in Vermont.
“If we are chosen, it’s going to go through an operational testing phase and then transition to an active unit squadron before we get them,” he said.
He said under that scenario, the Vermont Air Guard likely would not be flying F-35s before the end of the decade. “Any kinks will have been worked out of it by then,” he said.
It was unclear Wednesday what chance the proposed City Council resolution has of passage. Councilor Tom Ayres, D-Ward 7, attended the event but said he would oppose the resolution as written, and he predicted other like-minded councilors feel the same way.
“There has been demagoguery on both sides of this issue, and I think we’ve seen more of that today,” said Ayres, who considers himself as a critic of the F-35s.
Siegel said she and her Progressive colleagues on the council plan to make a major effort to win support for the resolution from other panel members.
Asked if she was willing to drop some parts of the resolution to gain support, Siegel said she was unsure. Democrats hold seven seats on the council; Republicans, one; and independents, two.
Mayor Weinberger skipped Wednesday’s event but said in an an interview later that it is too early to discuss whether he would veto the resolution should it reach his desk.
“I take it seriously,” he said, “and it deserves careful review.”