Debate over the F-35 has been dominated in recent weeks by the plane's opponents. But supporters of basing the fighter jets at Burlington International Airport went on the offensive Wednesday.
Their tactics did not prove as creative or as colorful as the opposition's deafening F-35 noise simulation and the fudge-gifting event staged at Sen. Patrick Leahy's downtown office. The organizer and two prominent backers of the Green Ribbons for the F-35 campaign held a traditional press conference at the Main Street headquarters of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The pro-F-35 speakers nevertheless made controversial claims that were met with skepticism from some of the reporters in attendance.
Chamber president Tom Torti argued, for example, that there's no validity to the case against the plane on the basis of the noise it makes. "We believe that's a red herring," he declared.
"We live in a noisy world," Torti said in response to a 2011 United Nations study indicating that human health is adversely affected by noise at the decibel level produced by the F-35. Torti cited leaf blowers, NASCAR races and "the cacophony of the weekend" as examples of loud noises to which many Vermonters are regularly exposed without ill effects.
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The Green Ribbons campaign likewise asserts "there will be no adverse health effects on citizens" from the noise made by the F-35 if it wins clearance for takeoffs from the Vermont Air Guard station at the Burlington airport. That claim is included on a postcard designed by South Burlington businesswoman and Essex Junction resident Nicole Citro, the originator of the Green Ribbons campaign.
Standing alongside a blowup of the pro-F-35 postcard, Citro announced that more than 10,000 of the pre-printed messages had been signed and mailed to the U.S. Air Force prior to the July 15 close of public comments on the draft statement regarding the plane's environmental impact. The Air Force says it will weigh citizens' comments in considering whether to base the stealth fighter jet in Vermont. A decision is not expected until November at the earliest.
This postal form of support comes from a "silent majority" that favors bringing the F-35 to the Burlington area, Citro said. Frank Cioffi, head of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. and a leading backer of the plane, agreed at the press conference that the plane has considerable local backing. He cited a petition in favor of the BTV basing option that, he said, has drawn a total of 18,000 signatures in the past two years.
Cioffi rested his case for the F-35 on the 1100 jobs that, he estimates, are linked to the operations of the Vermont Air Guard. "We're in an economy not seeing a lot of job creation," he said, suggesting that once jobs leave an area they do not come back and prove difficult to replace. Air Guard officers have said the Green Mountain Boys currently flying the F-16 fighter will have no clear mission after 2020 when that plane is due to be taken out of service in Vermont.
But Cioffi declined to defend the federal program under which some 200 moderately priced homes are being purchased and then demolished or left vacant in a high-noise zone bordering the Burlington airport. "We've expressed our frustration with that several times," the GBIC director said. He voiced faith in Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger's ability to develop an alternative to the housing buyout and tear-down initiative.
According to the Air Force's own projections, hundreds of additional homes near the airport will be included in a high-noise zone if the F-35 comes to BTV. Federal officials deem buildings within such an area to be "not suitable" for residential use.
Citro suggested that the eruption of protest against the F-35 is a typical feature of public debate in Vermont. "When opponents lock onto something they make sure they're hitting it and hitting it hard," she said.
She declined to divulge the cost or the sources of money for the Green Ribbons postcard campaign. "It's not pertinent to what's going on," Citro said.