Vermont Community Divided Over Hosting F-35s

fromVPR

Many air bases across the country are clamoring to get the next generation of fighter jets. But the Burlington, Vt. area is bitterly divided over being one of the Air Force's preferred locations. Some residents say there are enough problems already with the F-16s — like noise.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. Air Force's newest fighter jet has stirred up controversy over delays in development and big cost overruns. Also controversial is where the first F-35 fighters will be based. Near one of the preferred bases, the possible arrival of the F-35s has created a bitter divide in the community. From Vermont Public Radio, Jane Lindholm begins her story in one backyard.

EILEEN ANDREOLI: Hi, Katie.

KATIE KIRBY: Hello.

ANDREOLI: Would you like a little bit of blueberry coffee cake I just made?

KIRBY: I would, indeed.

(LAUGHTER)

JANE LINDHOLM, BYLINE: As Eileen Andreoli serves cake, bursting with fresh-picked blueberries, to neighbors on her leafy, suburban patio. Suddenly, the air is split.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE FLYING OVERHEAD)

ANDREOLI: This is the sound of the F-16s that fly over multiple times a day in the Winooski area.

LINDHOLM: F-16 fighter jets take off and land out of the Vermont Air Guard base at nearby Burlington International Airport. The Air Force is weighing Burlington against Hill Air Force Base in Utah as what it calls preferred locations for the first basing of its newest generation of jets, the F-35. Lieutenant General Michael Dubie, who led the Vermont Guard until a recent promotion, says getting the F-35s could be a matter of survival.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL MICHAEL DUBIE: I'm going to be real candid, here. We don't know what the future would be without the F-35. Our airplanes have to be replaced, or we have to get a new mission, or else we're going to be in a very difficult time to keep the base.

LINDHOLM: The Guard has some powerful advocates, including the governor, the state's congressional delegation and local business people who say the 1,100 Air Guard jobs are critical to the area's economy. But residents in the surrounding towns say their jobs, homes and communities are at stake, too.

KIRBY: As it is now, when the F-16s fly over, my front window rattles.

LINDHOLM: Katie Kirby rents a home in the flight path. She's tolerant of the F-16s, but points to a report from the Air Force that says the F-35s could be as much as four times louder. The Vermont Air Guard takes data from the same 1,100-page environmental impact statement, but comes to a different conclusion. It says the increase won't be nearly so dramatic, partly because pilots will be able to mitigate some of the noise by changing flight patterns and trajectories.

Rich Decker's barbeque truck is adorned with a green ribbon and prominently displayed bumper sticker signifying support for the F-35s. Decker says he gets about 50 Guard members a week at his cart, and his business would suffer if the Air Guard left. He doesn't have much sympathy for people who complain about the noise.

RICH DECKER: I grew up pretty close to the flight path of Philly Airport. After a while, you don't hear the planes. People that live near railroad tracks don't hear the railroad.

LINDHOLM: Michele Palardy hears the F-16s. She owns a multi-family home underneath the flight path. Palardy thinks problems for her would arrive even before the jets would.

MICHELE PALARDY: I don't think if I put my house on the market, it would sell. And I've had the same tenants for four years, and I'm afraid they would move.

LINDHOLM: If Burlington is chosen, Palardy's would be one of as many as 3,000 homes within an area the Federal Aviation Administration classifies as incompatible with residential use. Homeowners will be required to disclose that information in order to sell their homes.

The whole economic debate might be more easily solved if questions about sound could be answered. But the Air Force says the F-35 is still in development and not ready to fly to Vermont for a demonstration. Bob Andres owns a company that mediates noise disputes. He's not involved in the F-35 project, but it doesn't surprise him that people in Vermont are having a hard time.

BOB ANDRES: It's tricky sometimes, because sound can be a very emotional issue.

LINDHOLM: Emotional and subjective. Andres says everyone experiences noise differently, so it's hard to keep these types of debates contained to the facts. It's now up to the Air Force to weigh the arguments over the F-35's impact on northern Vermont.

For NPR news, I'm Jane Lindholm in Colchester, Vermont.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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