Opponents in F-35 debate say they’re ready for discussion | Burlington Free Press

By Wilson Ring (AP)

MONTPELIER — An opponent of plans to base F-35 fighter planes at the Burlington International Airport says she hopes a revised report that puts thousands more people in the area affected by aircraft noise will encourage public officials to discuss their concerns with residents.

Katherine Kirby, a co-founder of the group Save our Skies Vermont, said she was still trying to understand fully the implications of the 1,300-page document, plus appendices, released Friday by the Air Force.

“We need a dialogue,” said Kirby, a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College who lives in Winooski.

“Politics is inevitably unjust if it’s not primarily grounded in open and welcoming discourse,” she said Monday, paraphrasing the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. “This to me is what has been missing here.”

The initial 2012 report was revised to update census data at six bases — three National Guard and three Air Force — that are being considered to play host to the F-35s. The Air Force has said the South Burlington base is its preferred National Guard choice, but the final selection won’t be made until at least this fall, when the secretary of the Air Force makes a decision.

Depending on the number of aircraft that could be stationed in Burlington, about 7,700 people could be within a 65 decibel day-night average sound level, the level at which aircraft noise is considered to be incompatible with residential areas. The revised census data increased that figure by about 20 percent over the original number.

An environmental official for the Vermont National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing said the Air Force would take into account the revised draft environmental impact statement before making a decision about where to base the first operational F-35s, meaning aircraft that would be ready for war.

“The end result is it’s going to be a much better document,” said Adam Wright, a civilian who is the environmental manager for the 158th Fighter Wing.

Proponents say bringing F-35s to Burlington would guarantee more than 1,000 high-quality jobs and an important role in the nation’s defense for the Vermont Air National Guard. The proposal is supported by much of the state’s business community, Gov. Peter Shumlin and the three members of the congressional delegation.

F-35 opponents have mounted a vocal campaign, primarily citing noise and the implications of that noise on everything from property values to children.

Kirby said she felt the economic argument was being overstated, and the current F-16 mission could remain at the base for years to come if another base is picked for the F-35 mission.

She said the Burlington airport, located amid the most heavily populated part of Vermont, isn’t suitable for the noisy planes, and many of the affected neighborhoods are populated by low-income people.

She pointed out one statistic contained in the report: If 24 F-35s were to come to South Burlington, the number of low-income Vermonters affected by the noise would go from 463 affected by the F-16s being flown now, to 1,224.

“What I would love to see is for our elected officials to take the time to discuss the facts in this document with the citizens who are going to be affected by it,” Kirby said. “We’ve been asking for that over and over again.”

Vermont National Guard spokesman Capt. Christopher Gookin said the Guard has been flying for more than 60 years and has been one of the top-performing units.

“It’s a mission we are well-suited for,” Gookin said of the possibility of getting the F-35s.

He said updating the census numbers was an appropriate part of the process, and people are being heard.

“Regardless of what numbers have changed, the process remains transparent, defendable and repeatable,” Gookin said. “The citizens who are concerned about the F-35 on either side of the debate or discussion, everyone’s voice has been heard and incorporated into this new (environmental impact statement).”

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