F-35A fighter jets at Burlington International Airport

Four transient F-35A fighter jets landed at Burlington International Airport around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, the same day the long-awaited updated Noise Exposure Map was unveiled to the public. The jets flew in from Hill Air Force Base, Utah after being diverted due to weather and refueling schedules. The jets were headed overseas and were secured by the Vermont Air National maintenance and security teams. They were not attached to the Vermont Air National Guard or 158th Fighter Wing. Due to security issues, the jets were not available for public viewing. They left the airport sometime Friday morning before 10 a.m.

At 7:45 a.m. on May 29, Vermonters received an unexpected sound sampling of four transient F-35 fighter jets being diverted to the Burlington International Airport. Later that day in an ear-to- eye translation, the airport hosted an open house session revealing updated Noise Exposure Maps with F-35 data showing which homes will be the most impacted by the noise.

The event drew a crowd of approximately 200 people – residents, municipal leaders and the general public –who were all eager to see what had changed since the last maps were released.

The data revealed an increase in overall dwelling units that fall within a 65-decibel day-night average sound level (dB DNL): 2,640 dwelling units serving a total population of approximately 6,100 people, nearly triple the amount listed in 2015.

The contour lines show that the number of affected homes in South Burlington have decreased, while neighboring municipalities, such as Winooski and Williston, saw noticeable increases. Specifically, the contours to the east and west shrunk, while the north and south contours expanded.

The Noise Exposure Maps list 823 dwelling units within the contours for South Burlington – 125 fewer dwelling units than the 948 listed in the previous maps.

Noise Exposure Maps explained

Noise Exposure Maps (NEM) are computer-modulated maps that display average levels of sound defined by contours. The new maps show 2018 data with the F-16C fighter jets and a 2023 forecast year map with F-35A fighter jet data. It encompasses other aircraft as well as ground-level noise.

“This map is not just defining a single aircraft but rather explains the overall picture of noise exposure at the Burlington International Airport,” explained the airport’s deputy director, Nic Longo, at a press conference on Wednesday morning.

Properties that fall within a 65-dB DNL contour of the airport’s operations are considered eligible to participate in the Noise Compatibility Program, a voluntary program that assesses and minimizes noise from the airport and provides land use measures for mitigation from which homeowners can choose. The latest update to the Noise Compatibility Program was in 2008 and includes 15 FAA-approved measures with a mix of operational, implementation, and land use elements.

The airport is planning on submitting a new Noise Compatibility Program with updated land use measures but intends to eliminate the home buyout program, which was responsible for the razing of 200 homes and was, as South Burlington City Council stated, a hit to the city’s affordable housing stock.

Instead, the airport will focus on preserving the existing homes through other means. The three measures that will be pitched to the FAA in the Noise Compatibility Program for review include:

A Residential Sound Insulation Program, a Sales Assistance Program where the airport provides a differential to assist in the sale of a property if the seller receives less than Fair Market Value, and a Purchase Assurance Program in which the airport purchases the property at appraised Fair Market Value, sound proofs it, and resells it on the open market.

The Noise Exposure Maps and the Noise Compatibility Program are part of a larger federal regulation known as the 14 CFR Part 150 Program. The airport has participated in the program for over 30 years.

Looking at the map, the contour from the existing condition data for 2018 with the F-16C fighter jet is overall smaller than both the 2015 and 2023 contours, which is atypical, according to the NEM document. This decrease is due to two primary factors: the Vermont Air National Guard’s phasing out of the F-16 fighter jets in preparation for the F-35s, and runway construction, which hindered the use of afterburners for the F-16 departures.

The five-year forecast condition map for 2023 is more dramatic in comparison to 2018, with over 2,600 dwelling units in the Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) contour interval contour for 2023 compared to only 380 in 2018. It is more in line with the contours predicted in the 2013 Environmental Impact Statement released by the Air Force.

Brandon Robinette of HMMH, the consultant hired to assist the airport with the Noise Exposure Maps, explained that the contour shift was mostly, “departure-driven.”

“Most of the noise iterations that are driving these longer contour areas are from the departing aircraft,” he said.

And there are other factors.

“The F-35 certainly weighs into it, but there’s a change in the commercial aircraft here in Burlington, and as Nic mentioned here earlier, there’s an increase in operations overall, and that contributes to the noise contour [shift],” explained Diane Carter, COO at Jones Payne Group, the consultant hired to assist the airport with the Noise Compatibility Program.

The local municipalities within the 2023 65 dB DNL contour include South Burlington, Burlington, Winooski, Williston, Colchester, and Essex.

With FAA approval, grants for these land use options could bring an estimated $100 million to Chittenden County over the next 20 years. Individual homes could qualify for as much as $50,000 in grant funding.

Seeking answers

Wednesday night’s community open house attracted a robust group of people, and several individuals used it as a platform to publicly denounce the basing of the F-35.

Airport officials as well as consultants Jones Payne Group and HMMH were available at several stations for questions.

Members of the Vermont Air National Guard were also present. The Guard confirmed earlier that day that the four F-35s grounded in Burlington were from Hill Air Force Base in Utah and were transitioning overseas. They were diverted due to weather and refueling schedules.

“It harms the civilians from the noise and the crash risk and the nuclear bomb problem, but it also makes our airport a target,” Jimmy Leas, a patent attorney and strong opponent of the F-35, said in a raised voice among a circling crowd. In a one-on-one conversation with Nic Longo, he later said:

“It’s an ineffective solution. It takes too long. It’s too little and too late. It takes 52 years to do it. In the meantime, people are going to be damaged. The real solution is to cancel the military fighter jets.”  

Once the program is FAA-approved, property owners closest to the airport and most affected will receive priority in selecting a land use measure, and the airport will gradually work its way out, eventually toward the edge of the 65 dB DNL. The program can only handle 50 homes at a time, so properties on the outskirts of the line will have to wait several years. The map will be revised about every five years, so the contours will need to be monitored for any change.

Serena Baker, a resident of Maryland Street directly across from the airport, stared at the Noise Exposure Maps focused on her region of South Burlington. She has been a resident for three years and is a mother. Her mother resides in Williston where she is also affected by the noise.

“I get that we’re probably not going to stop this, but what are they going to do to make our lives still OK?” she asked.

“Nobody has to worry about whether or not they’ll be found,” explained Richard Doucette, FAA Environmental Program Manager in the Planning and Program Branch, New England Region Airports Division. “The airport will find them. Nobody has to raise their hand and say, ‘Please come to my house.’ The airport and FAA decide who is eligible to apply, and then it’s the airport’s job to reach out to them. They send certified letters, they’ll start knocking on doors, put flyers in mailboxes – they take several attempts to inform the eligible homeowners.”

John Bolton’s home on Pine Street Terrace is just outside the 65-dB DNL contour, but the information still serves a greater purpose.

“It doesn’t affect me in terms of what’s been proposed, but it’s still something that concerns me,” he said. “I’m wondering about the future ... I’ve just had a lot of renovations done on my property a few years ago.”

Also, Chamberlin School, which sits a half a mile from the airport and near the Vermont National Guard Base, remains on the map,

“Bottom line for the school district is that we’ll likely still qualify for the grant for the positive sound ventilation package – or more. We think that’s still true,” said South Burlington School District’s Superintendent David Young.

The district invested in an independent sound study with existing conditions last year. The airport was also granted funding last July from the FAA to perform testing on the school to determine whether the existing interior noise levels of learning and administrative office spaces would be eligible for sound mitigation. According to the results, the school did not meet the FAA’s eligibility requirement for sound insulation treatments.

However, the school did qualify for, as Young mentioned, installation of a positive ventilation system so that the windows and doors could remain closed at all times.

“Tonight, this is about information, and we were successful,” Gene Richards, the airport’s director of aviation, said at the event’s conclusion. “The anti- F-35s were here and were able to voice their opinion, and it was a good platform for that, and we were able to listen. The most important thing is that we were able to talk to people who needed information about their homes.”

 “We tried to best talk about our operations and about how we support the airport, we’re users of the airport with the agreement. We impact the community,” said Lt. Chelsea Clark, the Vermont Air National Guard public affairs officer.

“The common question is, ‘What happens next?’” Longo said. “It’s the Noise Compatibility Program.”

Public feedback is encouraged during a 30-day period. The airport will then submit the Noise Exposure Maps to the FAA for review. Acceptance of the maps will make them the official new Noise Exposure Maps for the airport. Later this summer into fall, the airport will work with a Technical Advisory Committee, which is comprised of community leadership, about the Noise Compatibility Program.

For complete information, including an interactive map, visit http://www.btvsound.com/map/

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