Cancel F-35 basing, Burlington voters advise

Voters in Burlington said no to the F-35 Tuesday, approving a ballot measure that advises the City Council to request the cancellation of a plan to base the fighter jets in the city next year.

The measure passed with 55 percent of the votes.

"I think this is pretty clear — the people have spoken," said Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel who has become a leading voice in campaigns opposing the basing.

Tuesday's vote closed the latest chapter in a years-long debate over the decision by the Air Force in 2013 to deploy 18 of the jets to the Vermont Air National Guard base. Airport neighbors and other opponents have argued that the newly developed warplane is too noisy and too risky to station in Vermont's most densely populated area, while politicians and economic leaders have maintained that the project brings financial benefits to the region.

Opponents of the basing are clocking the vote as a win. But it remains unclear whether the message from voters will affect the military's plans.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who was elected to his third term Tuesday, has consistently supported the F-35 proposal. While he told VTDigger last month that the city would have to "do some additional work" if the ballot measure passed, he has not said how he plans to follow through on voters' wishes.

Weinberger said after Tuesday's election results that he would revisit the issue.

"The fact that a majority like that has spoken means I owe it, and the City Council owes it, to listen to the people of Burlington, look at where we are, look at some of the new reporting that's come out, and see if there's some new information that requires further evaluation," he said.

But the mayor said the city is "a long way" from making a request to the Air Force to change its plans, adding that "thousands of people came out to support the Air National Guard as well."

City Councilor Adam Roof, who was re-elected in Ward 8 Tuesday, said he aimed to follow through on the ballot measure's call to action but couldn't guarantee the results.

"If the community was going to ask me to have that conversation with decision-makers at the federal level, I'm going to go do that," Roof said Tuesday night, adding, "I'm not sure how that conversation's going to go."

The ballot measure asks the council to request "low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record" instead of the proposed


Opponents have pointed out that military plans have been altered or scaled back in other locations, noting that Burlington is the first city that brought a debate over aircraft basing to a public vote.

But Air Guard officials have maintained that there is no alternative aircraft under consideration for Burlington. Brig. Gen. Joel Clark said at a press event last week that the Guard cannot "pick and choose" what equipment it flies.

Real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau, who has vocally supported the basing, believes the ballot measure won't make a difference. "It's a fait accompli," he said after Tuesday's results. "Nothing's going to change."

Pomerleau and others have said that the question — which states voters' "strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard" — could confuse those who don't read its full text.

City Council members debated that language earlier this year, but advanced the measure as written due to a recent court case that set a precedent for legal action if the petition were denied.

Pomerleau said the language undermines the measure's effectiveness. "It caused so much confusion that I don't think the vote will add up to anything," he said. "If it had been a real vote with real language, they might have been able to say, 'see?'"

Jimmy Leas, an attorney in South Burlington who helped draft the ballot question, said he believes there's nothing misleading about its language.

"We want Air Guard to have a mission," he said. "We just don't want them to have a dangerous mission — either for themselves, or for the men and women of the neighborhood."

Leas said he plans to set up meetings with the mayor and City Council, Vermont's members of Congress, Gov. Phil Scott, and members of both the Air Guard and the Air Force, all of whom have previously rebuffed opponents and maintained their support for the project.

"We want to work out what is the best solution that would be compatible with the location," Leas said.

Greco said, "The next step is for the mayor and the City Council to tell the Air Force to assign an aircraft suitable for a residential area. I'm fully confident the Air Force will do that." Greco also said that the Air Force's Environmental Impact Statement — the same document that first alerted opponents to the noise and risk levels associated with the plane — stated that a majority of residents who commented on the proposal expressed opposition back in 2013.

"The vote today just corroborates what people said during the comment period," Greco said. "People have always been opposed to it."


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