F-35 opponents force City Council to float ballot question

Charles Simpson, progressive candidate for the Ward 6 city council seat, and F-35 opponent, addresses Friday’s news conference. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger
BURLINGTON — A group opposed to basing F-35 fighter jets at the Burlington airport claimed a small victory after gathering enough signatures on a petition to force the Burlington City Council to discuss, once again, whether to revisit the long-running controversy.
Activists calling themselves Save our Skies have been working for months to put the issue back before voters in the form of a non-binding question on Burlington’s March ballot that, should voters approve, would direct the Burlington City Council to oppose the notoriously noisy jets, and request quieter aircraft, instead.
Save our Skies held a news conference outside Burlington City Hall Friday morning to announce that enough signatures had been gathered to force the Burlington City Council to hold a discussion at its Jan. 29 meeting about whether to add the question to the March ballot.
“I don’t think that the wise and compassionate voters of Burlington, given a voice, will want this to happen,” Charles Simpson, an activist and progressive candidate for the Ward 6 city council seat, said of the plan to bring F-35s to Burlington.
Members of Save our Skies, along with the City of Winooski, lost a court battle in 2016 challenging the findings of a U.S. Department of Defense environmental study that gave a green light to deploying the planes at the airport.
Three F-35A test aircraft. Lockheed Martin file photo
The Vermont Air National Guard is scheduled to start replacing its current fleet of 18 F-16 aircraft with new F-35s as early as next year. The F-35s will make nearly 5,500 flights per year out of Burlington — fewer than the number of F-16 flights — but they will be significantly louder than F-16s. Houses closest to the airport have been vacated and sold through a Federal Aviation Administration program that buys homes severely affected by noise pollution.
About 200 empty houses have been demolished, according to the group, and thousands more houses around the airport will become unlivable should the F-35s come, the group has warned.
The success of the petition is no guarantee of friendly skies in City Hall. Many city councilors and Mayor Miro Weinberger remain in favor of basing the F-35s in the Burlington, and previous attempts to reopen the issue have failed.
The F-35 debate came to a head in Burlington several years ago, when during a 2013 council meeting the council defeated two anti-F-35 resolutions.
“I think this decision was made a long time ago, and I have not heard a compelling reason to reopen it,” Weinberger told VTDigger earlier this month.
How much weight the petition carries is open to some question. In South Burlington, residents fighting a school board decision to change the South Burlington High School sports teams from the ‘Rebels’ to the ‘Wolves’ organized a petition to force a public vote on the change. Though opponents of the name-change gathered five percent of voters’ signatures, the School Board declined to take up the issue again.
In December, Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Mello ruled that a lawsuit, brought by residents over the board refusal to put the question to a vote, could go forward. The ruling suggests that the court could force the School Board to put the question of the team name directly before the voters, and that any government body in Vermont that denies a similar petition could be running afoul of the Vermont constitution.
In the likely event the council declines the petitioners’ request to put the F-35 question on the March ballot, Save our Skies said they would take the matter to court.
“We are going to bring this to court if the City Council mistakenly denies this getting on the ballot,” said James Leas, an activist and patent lawyer from South Burlington who works with Save our Skies.
“No way they’re going to deny the voters in Burlington a vote on such a crucial issue,” Leas said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: F-35 opponents force City Council to float ballot question.