By LAUREN SAGE REINLIE
VALPARAISO — Residents came out Tuesday to voice their opposition to the Air Force’s recommendation to allow more F-35 jets to fly over their community.
About 200 people attended the sometimes emotional meeting at the First Baptist Church to discuss a draft of an environmental impact statement on the F-35 program that was released last month.
Valparaiso Mayor Bruce Arnold said the proposal to lift temporary flight restrictions on the runway that sends jets over Valparaiso would quickly bankrupt his city by driving residents away and depleting the city’s revenue stream.
“While it has always been the desire of the city of Valparaiso to be supportive of the Air Force mission … where we have never waivered in our commitment to see Eglin’s success, this alternative represents the greatest amount of harm the Air Force can inflict on our city,” he said.
The environmental impact statement has been in the works since 2009. It analyzes several proposals for how the F-35 training program at Eglin Air Force Base can ramp up its number of flights as the training program expands in the coming years.
The Air Force recommends lifting temporary restrictions of flights on a runway that sends air traffic over Valparaiso — the only proposal that doesn’t require additional construction.
However, the proposal would mean more people and more homes could potentially be affected by noise than any of the other options. About 180 additional homes would be exposed to sound levels more than 75 decibels under that plan.
The six other alternatives, which call for construction of new runways at Eglin or Duke Field, would affect an additional 15 to 25 homes.
Many of the 20 or so people who spoke Tuesday night expressed similar concerns as Arnold: noise impacts, safety and decrease property values.
Arnold, who was allowed to exceed the otherwise strict three-minute limit on comments, acknowledged that his and the residents’ opposition to the plan runs contrary to surrounding communities who support any alternative that keeps operations at Eglin, the largest economic generator in Northwest Florida.
“Our community is at odds with the economic development engine that Eglin brings to our sister cites,” he said. “We are also cognizant of being the only community at ground zero and disproportionally carrying the burden of the local impacts. Our voice is diluted, our concerns are not being heard, much less mitigated.”
The hearing often became a spout off about the F-35 program in general. Arnold cited numbers of residents who already have been affected by the F-35 program and less about the specific ones who will be affected by lifting the restrictions.
Several residents said property values in the area already are being hurt.
Eglin is the training center for F-35 pilots and maintainers from the Air Force, Marines, Navy and partner counties. The jets began flying at the base last year.
A few residents spoke in support of the program and the Air Force’s recommendation to lift the restriction on the existing runway.
Dave Halupowski, a 40-year Valparaiso resident, said he has become accustomed to the unusual sights and sounds that come with living so close to an Air Force base.
He said he is much more worried about his daughter going off to war than he is about noise from the F-35.
“I refuse to be a hindrance to the defense of our nation, and the nation needs the F-35,” he said.
He and a resident from Fort Walton Beach who spoke were booed by the crowd.
Tuesday’s comments will be submitted with the draft when it is turned over to Air Force leaders for review. Comments will be accepted through July 29.
The final report is expected to be released to the public this fall with a final record of decision expected to be signed by the winter of 2014, Air Force officials say.
TO LEARN MORE: Copies of the environmental impact statement are available online at nwfdailynews.com and at local libraries. Comments can be submitted through July 29 to Mike Spaits, Eglin Public Affairs Office, 101 West D Ave., Suite 235, Eglin Air Force Base, FL 32542, by phone at 882-2836 or by email at email@example.com.