South Burlington City Councilors listen to the comments of residents during a three hour public hearing, Monday, July 8.

Council Reverses F-35 Decision

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Thursday July 11, 2013

The city of South Burlington experienced high civic turnout on Monday night at a public hearing to address one of the most polarizing topics of discussion at the city, county, and state level. Chamberlin School parking lot was packed, and more than eighty residents signed up to take the microphone for two minutes each. Over 200 individuals filled the school gymnasium eager to listen, to be heard, and to witness firsthand how the current Council would decide to represent the city regarding the possible bed-down of the F-35. 

As many residents expected throughout the meeting, the tables turned. The City Council, which hit the spotlight on May 21, 2012 with a 4-1 vote in opposition, flipped sides with a 3-2 vote in support of  basing the F-35 fighter jets at the Burlington International Airport. 

The Monday, July 8,  public meeting came at the request of resident and former chair of the council Bill Cimonetti during a June 17 Council meeting. Several weeks later, at the July 1 Council meeting, a request was made by four women to postpone the public hearing 48 hours, until after an informational meeting which had subsequently been scheduled for Tuesday, July 9.  Councilors Riehle and Greco supported the request for delay, Mackenzie and Shaw opposed and the request was dismissed. 

Though the audience statements were diverse, there were commonalities among speakers, the majority of whom weighed in against the F-35 basing. Many residents, for instance, have lived in South Burlington for decades. Many of the residents who spoke live near the airport, and a number of them served the country at one point in time. 

“We’re going to have a loss in our economy...hundreds of airmen and airwomen will be transferred,” Retired Maj. Patrick Benner, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force reserve, U.S. Army Guard/ military and civilian pilot for 25 years said.  “They’re the same people who buy your insurance, buy fuel, buy groceries...can we afford loss of these individuals who shop at our stores?”

There were servicemen and women on both sides of the issue. 

“This is the perfect time to consider assigning the Air Guard a new mission,” Bob Walsh, a retired Lt. Col. in the U.S. Marine Corps and Mountain View Drive resident suggested to Council. “One that would meet the needs of the service, protect jobs, bolster the economy, and bring aircraft that’s compatible with the Burlington area....our congressional delegation and our governor have refused to consider this option. That leaves it up to you, South Burlington City Council, to take the lead and find a solution that benefits all the citizens of South Burlington.” 

As the two minute timer flashed from green, to yellow, to red, residents — one by one — laid out all the topics of concern: the economy, the FAA home buyout program, quality of life, noise, aircraft safety, effects on children, cost, political motives, scare tactics, and more. Debra Hazel, a Mayfair Park resident of 20 years, stated that she doesn’t mind the current F-16s, but F-35s are “unimaginable.” 

“I look to you to protect that [South Burlington neighborhood appeal] for us,” she said. “Please vote for community.”

Resident Jeanne Sutton reminded the audience that members of VTANG have families as well that will face serious transitioning if the F-35 jets do not come to Burlington.

Most comments came with a passionate bias, but it was resident and former councilor Jim Knapp that opted for neutrality. Knapp suggested that the City Council withdraw its current position on the F-35 and take no position. 

“No matter what decision you make, you’re discounting the feelings, the concerns, the passion of half your audience,” Knapp said “....spend your time coming up with a plan that addresses the occurrences that will happen when the planes come or don’t come. Each will have a significant effect on this area, and if you don’t take the time that we have to create a contingency plan for either occurrence, you haven’t really fulfilled the function of municipal government.” 

Other members of the audience concurred with this notion. Nicole Citro, founder of Green Ribbons for the F-35, was the sole South Burlington business representative signed up to speak.

“The support is overwhelming,” Citro said. “In a year since I started this campaign there are 10,000 ribbon stickers out there showing support.” 

With the hearing finished, it was up to City Council to decide: support, oppose, or withdraw the existing stance? Without further conversation, Vice Chair Pat Nowak made a motion to support the basing of the F-35. Clerk Chris Shaw seconded. The room buzzed, and with the motion on the floor, councilors proceeded to outline their final statements.

 Councilor Rosanne Greco, a retired U.S. Air Force Col. and one of the most prominent voices in the opposition of the F-35 bed-down spoke  first. “Wise leaders gather as much information as possible before making important decisions,” she told the audience and fellow councilors. Making a decision prior to Tuesday’s informational meeting with doctors and researchers regarding noise effects on children would be “irresponsible and negligent”, or, in military terms, a “dereliction of duty.” 

“Our Guard has had many missions over the years, and they will likely change missions in the future,” Greco explained. “But 8,000 people can’t relocate, and 1,500 children who have lost their health and cognitive abilities may never regain them...I make this choice not despite my military career, but because of it.” 

Councilor Helen Riehle agreed that the public meeting should have been rescheduled after the Tuesday, July 9  meeting, where new scientific information will be provided. She is still firm in her decision to oppose the basing, she said, but if the F-35 fighter jets do come to the Burlington International Airport, Councilors will have to think “creatively and deliberately” in the planning process. 

Shaw explained that he, too, had read the Draft EIS; although he hadn’t read it as thoroughly as Greco, he had an “intellectual grasp” of what it meant for South Burlington. Shaw explained that he has unconditional support for the Vermont Air National Guard, and in supporting the F-35, is remaining “loyal to a [long-term] relationship” between South Burlington and VTANG for 67 years. Nowak also expressed her support for the basing of the F-35.

 “I am one of you,” Nowak addressed  the audience, referencing that she has lived in the airport neighborhood for over thirty years.  She spoke of her previous desire to be appointed to the Airport Commission as a South Burlington representative hoping to provide the perspective of living in close proximity to the airport. “I care about this community.” 

Chair Pam Mackenzie did not issue a formal statement, which stirred up a considerable portion of the audience. As Mackenzie and Greco continued the exchange relating to councilor’s statements, resident George Maille raised his voice over the commotion: “Point of Order!” he repeated. Once it quieted down, Maille advised Mackenzie that she should state a decision. In the end, no formal statement was provided by Mackenzie, and the Council voted 3-2 in support of the basing of the F-35 at  Burlington International Airport. 

City Council will send a written statement to the Air Force with its new position, Mackenzie said. 


SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent