In 2010 (I was on the Council at the time), the first public meeting to discuss the proposed basing of the F-35 at BIA was held in Winooski. Later, when the draft EIS was issued in 2012, I read with consternation the data indicating a 50% increase in the number of homes that would fall in a zone around the airport deemed incompatible with residential use (rising from 1900 to 2900 homes, or over 6600 people). Over the six years since, I have only become more convinced that the F-35 is incompatible with a densely populated, residential area. This remains the case, in spite of the federal judge’s finding last year. As history as shown us — with the suffrage and civil rights movements, for instance — because something is legal does not necessarily mean that it is right.
South Burlington residents are deeply patriotic. Many have served with valor in the military or provided direct support as family members, friends, business owners, and taxpayers. As a community, we are civic-minded and actively invested in the democratic process. Our democracy is enshrined in our city charter and in the Vermont and US constitutions, which our military members solemnly swear to uphold. At the same time, South Burlington residents object to, if not the noise, then the impacts of the noise and the noise compatibility programs, which have been decimating our affordable housing stock, putting the future of one of our three elementary schools in jeopardy, and overall disrupting the peace of mind and quality of life of many who reside here. We have the policies of two federal agencies at work here in South Burlington. Mayor Weinberger of Burlington has stated and restated his desire to stop the buyout program and pursue other mitigation programs. The Regional Director of the FAA, however, has stated that, other than home acquisition, no noise mitigation exists to lessen the impact of these high-powered jets. It is a Hobson’s choice from the perspective of us living here in South Burlington. There is no win-win with the F-35, which forces me to consider my responsibility to protect the rights, the economic assets, and the future wellbeing and prosperity of South Burlington residents, which is also prescribed by our Comprehensive Plan.
In spite of the wishes of the Burlington Mayor, we here in South Burlington have to consider the likelihood that the F-35 will trigger the same mechanism that brought us the home acquisition program to begin with. Our residents will rightfully demand federal relocation assistance — thus leading to the demolition of hundreds more houses on top of the two hundred that have or will soon become unavailable to our workers. The lack of affordable workforce housing has reached the crisis point in our region and state. People, and particularly people who are responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of our community, have to look at the big picture. There are few alternatives for our workers to relocate in South Burlington. For this reason, many go to communities north, east, or south of us, further away from public transportation and job centers. The drift outward increases the number of cars on our roads, and our schools lose families with children — incurring further costs. Additionally, since Chittenden County is the center of economic activity in the state, we need housing not only for the people who work here but also for those workers whom our businesses wish to recruit. Studies show that the lack of available affordable housing in South Burlington and elsewhere is the number one factor that is hampering our economy due to slowed growth in our workforce. The lack of available affordable housing causes our grown children to move elsewhere and prospective recruits to decline job offers. The workforce shortage is real and measurable; and it is a big problem.
Today is not yesterday. We have to look at the facts now and use our best judgment based on those. Well beyond “who was here first?”, the question we need to ask is, “What should the region’s priorities be in order for our economic future to be bright?” Chittenden County is the economic engine of the state. Today, given all we know, the F35s are not compatible with our economic priorities. A federal policy decision that leads to another federal-level decision to fund the demolition of homes that serve our workforce and are in short supply is shortsighted and, therefore, unwise.
Fortunately, this seeming predicament does not leave us with another win-lose situation. The Air Force has stated on a number of occasions that there are other options. Other flying and even combat missions are available — with no loss of federal dollars and emergency responders at the airport, no loss of personnel (maybe even an increase), and certainly no loss of the base. Any suggestion that the base will go away is patently false. An excerpt from the Air Force’s brief submitted in federal court last year (a lawsuit to which Winooski was a full party and South Burlington joined as amicus curiae) states the following: “There could have been any number of reasonable alternatives available to the Air Force on how to configure Burlington” (Federal court records, Case No 5:14-cv-132, Defendants Memo in Opposition to Plaintiffs Motion, March 7, 2016, pp. 59-60). Furthermore, one of the options, the C-130 — from its noise and safety profile to the jobs it brings — provides the win-win that our state, our nation, the local and state economy, and the residents of this city and region need.
Some people may wonder why politicians disagree on the conclusion to be derived from all of these factors. Or maybe not. Politicians often disagree. That is in the nature of representative democracy. We are of diverse viewpoints and opinions, just as the public is, and that is as it should be. The goal, ultimately to the benefit of the public, is a full airing of views in order to strike a balance between valid priorities and concerns. Pat Nowak provided that on this Council, and we grieve her loss. I keep her in mind, and not least of all in honor of her contributions to this six-years’ long discussion and debate that we have taken up again tonight. We had our honest, if passionate, differences. I do respect Pat and her position.
On the other hand, there is the question of vested interests (securing votes from constituencies, corporate donations, or some other political gain or promise of advancement). I will not take the time to highlight all the facts uncovered through the fine investigative journalism performed by many news outlets (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Boston Globe), including the reporting by Jasper Craven at the VT Digger. Suffice it to say, I am happy that Burlington voters have shown more sense than has our Congressional delegation. It is also fortunate that I am free to say so. I am not bound by promises, am beholden to no one and nothing other than my own conscience, and am accountable only to the residents of South Burlington. Every day, we start anew in order to uphold the democratic principles on which this country was founded. It takes a lot of work, and there is much work to be done. The fact that petitioners had to go to the Burlington voters in order for them to have a say (instruct the local governing body that oversees the operations at the Airport) speaks to the failure of the democratic process in this basing decision. We shall see if their efforts, and the Burlington City Council’s 9-3 decision to heed the will of the voters, lead to a needed correction.
Furthermore, taxation or any form of hardship without representation goes against our basic American democratic principles. We fought a war over it. The fact that South Burlington, the community that has sacrificed and will continue to sacrifice the most and that stands to benefit the most from the economic benefits an airport provides, has no say over this basing decision or Airport Improvement Plans that directly impact our city, is, to put it simply, un-American. Some have argued to me that it is unconstitutional. Again, there is much work to be done.
We have learned about the F-35’s problems over the past six years. This decision is not just about the residents living around the airport whom the basing decision has already impacted. It is about the regional and state economy, and ultimately about our democracy. Thank you, Burlington, for listening to the people and for giving me the opportunity to stand in solidarity with you.