Opponents of a plan to bring a state-of-the-art fighter jet to Vermont are disputing a judge’s ruling that basing the F-35 in Burlington does not need state environmental review.
Vermont Superior Court Judge Thomas Walsh issued a decision this week backing up an Environmental Commission coordinator’s opinion that the state’s environmental review process, Act 250, does not apply to the siting of 18 F-35 fighter jets at the Burlington International Airport.
While the Vermont Air Guard has said siting the planes will require about $5 million in building upgrades, Judge Walsh concluded “.....the proposed alterations to the Vermont Air National Guard Base and the proposed siting of the F-35A jets at the base do not constitute development....” He also found “... no physical change or change in use...for the Airport runway and ....no substantial change in pre-existing development...”. Judge Walsh noted that Act 250 was enacted for review of large scale changes in land utilization and ruled an Act 250 permit is not required.
Four opponents of the F-35s had appealed the initial opinion, including James Marc Leas. He believes the judge ignored data that have already been presented in the Air Force’s environmental impact statement . “The Air Forces says there’s a huge change in the use of the air field when we go from the F-16 to the F-35 and the judge had to ignore all of that. What the Air Force said just on the noise issue is the F-35 will be more than four times louder than the F-16. He just said that the runway itself is not going to see any change. Well, that’s not Act 250 review. Act 250 review is supposed to look at the environmental consequences.”
Nicole Citro coordinated the Green Ribbons for the F-35 campaign, an effort to show support for basing the fighter jets in Burlington. Citro is hearing more of the same from people adamantly opposed to the F-35s. “The judge was pretty definitive in saying that it did not apply to the circumstances for what was going on at the Guard. And then of course the Vermont Air Guard has stated time and time again that they will absolutely be working on noise mitigation through how it is they will be flying these jets. They truly believe that once the F-35 is here that it’ll actually be much, much of a lesser impact than what is stated in the Environmental Impact Statement. I just feel that for the opponents to keep trying to pursue this, just, the decision has been made. Maybe what would be better is if we would just work as a community together to address concerns as opposed to bringing it through the court system.”
Leas said the appellants had yet to decide whether they would request a reconsideration of the decision, or if they would appeal it to the Vermont Supreme Court. Leas says Judge Walsh must consider the impact of the noise generated by the jets. “His decision is contrary to many other decisions under Act 250 where the consequences to the environment are considered. Not just specific physical circumstances. What are the consequences to the environment all around have to be considered, and have been considered. So if this ruling stands, if the Vermont Supreme Court affirms this decision, it’s going to be a huge blow to environmental law. It’s going to be a new precedent vastly restricting the Act 250 environmental review in Vermont.”
Eighteen F-35s are scheduled to arrive in Vermont in 2020 to replace current F-16 fighter planes.