James Leas testifies at City Council meeting

James Leas (right) of South Burlington testifies at Monday’s City Council meeting in favor of the resolution that opposes a nuclear mission for the F-35s that will begin to arrive in Burlington in September. 

The Burlington City Council approved a resolution Monday opposing the basing of nuclear weapons delivery systems at the Burlington International Airport, in advance of the arrival of the F-35 fighter jets this fall. 

Some fear the F-35s will be upgraded to have a nuclear mission.

The council unanimously approved a motion expressing its “strong opposition” to the basing of any nuclear weapons delivery systems at the airport, following the Vermont Senate’s approval of a similar motion in May.

The Air Force says the F-35s that will be based at the Vermont Air National Guard this fall do not have a nuclear mission and are not yet capable of transporting nuclear weapons. But the Department of Defense’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states that the F-35s are part of the country’s nuclear deterrence strategy.

“The United States is incorporating nuclear capability onto the forward-deployable, nuclear capable F-35 as a replacement for the current aging DCA (dual capable aircraft),” the report says.

The first jets will arrive in September, with a fleet of 18 set to be stationed at the airport by the end of next summer.

Councilor Jack Hanson, who was a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the possibility that the F-35s could be upgraded to nuclear capacity inspired the resolution.

“It’s meaningful for us as a community to explicitly oppose that, because it still is a possibility,” Hanson said.

The Winooski and South Burlington city councils have passed similar resolutions. The hour-long public forum featured dozens of speakers who spoke in favor of the resolution and against the basing of the F-35s at the airport. The residents, who had two minutes each to speak, expressed fear about Burlington becoming a target in a nuclear war and concerns about jet noise.

“This is about the decision to support nuclear war or not,” Burlington resident Laurie Larson said.

One of the speakers was state Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, who is the lead sponsor of the House’s version of the bill passed by the Senate. Cina urged the council to support the resolution.

“Tonight the Burlington City Council has a chance to make a strong statement against nuclear proliferation,” Cina said. “This resolution represents the voice of the people and a nuclear abolition movement that has spanned generations.”

Council President Kurt Wright proposed an amendment that stated the council recognized the jets would arrive in September.

“We understand that this resolution expressing strong opposition to any nuclear mission for these planes will have no impact on the arrival of the F-35 A jets in September,” Wright’s amendment states.

After a lengthy discussion about parliamentary procedure, the council approved the amendment, 7-4. Hanson, who along with Councilors Perri Freeman, Ali Dieng and Max Tracy voted no, said he believed Wright’s amendment was not in line with the rest of the resolution.

Wright reiterated the Air Force’s statements that the F-35s did not have a nuclear mission and said his resolution was meant to acknowledge the fact that the jets are coming.

“This is not in the hands of the City Council at this point; this is a decision that has been made,” Wright said. “The F-35s are coming next month.”

Wright’s amendment also requested that Gene Richards, the airport’s director of aviation, update the council on its noise mitigation efforts at the council’s first October meeting.

The total number of dwelling units in the region exposed to average noise levels of more than 65 decibels — considered “unsuitable for residential use” — will rise from 819 in 2015 to an estimated 2,640 in 2023.

The city of Burlington, the airport’s owner, and surrounding communities have not finalized plans for noise mitigation programs. Burlington can apply for Federal Aviation Administration grants to help residents in surrounding communities pay for special sound proofing insulation for their homes. It’s not clear how the 10 percent local match needed for the grants would be paid for.

Councilor Joan Shannon said she was “100 percent anti-nuke” and took the threats of nuclear weapons in Vermont seriously. She read an email she received from a staffer in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office that said there were no plans to deploy nuclear weapons to Burlington and that it would be extremely unlikely in the future.

Shannon said she supported the resolution but wanted to address community concerns about the likelihood of nuclear weapons in Vermont.

The council passed a resolution in March 2018 asking the Air Force to cancel the F-35s basing at the airport. Mayor Miro Weinberger has been a longtime supporter of the mission, and allowed the resolution to take effect without his support.

Councilor Adam Roof said he thought it was important for communities to express their concerns.

“But city council debates, whether it’s in Burlington or anywhere else, is not the deciding factor for the United States of America to establish strategic national defense policies,” he said.

Hanson said he opposes the basing of the F-35s at the airport, but he did not believe there was anything the city could do to prevent their arrival this fall.

“I wish I could stop them from coming all together,” Hanson said. “That’s not what this resolution does, and as far as I’m aware the city doesn’t have the opportunity to do it at this time.”

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