With a decision from the Air Force on whether to base F35 jet fighters at the Vermont Air Guard Base in South Burlington just weeks away, business leaders in Chittenden County are releasing results of their petition drive in support of the plan.
Neighborhoods in South Burlington fall within the area exposed to noise levels characterized as "incompatible" under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, but the Chamber of Commerce maintains that the Guard is an important economic asset to the region.
President Frank Cioffi says that the 11,000 signatures the Chamber collected in a three-week span reflect widespread regional support.
"We think it’s just a small example of the huge grassroots support that Vermonters have for the men and women of the Vermont Air Guard and also for the basing of the F35s," Cioffi said at a press conference Thursday afternoon in Burlington, where he found himself surrounded by other businessmen – many of them wearing blue blazers and green solidarity "Support the F35" ribbons.
"To us this comes down to a matter of economics," Cioffi said, dismissing noise concerns raised by those who live around the airport. "For six minutes a day, four days a week, we get 1,100 jobs. And that is a very, very significant positive impact on northwestern Vermont."
One of those jobs is held by Gabrielle Mennier’s son. Mennier started the grassroots effort to get petitions out, placing them in stores and gas stations.
At Thursday’s press conference, Mennier glanced down at those coffee-stained petitions as she spoke emotionally about her son, Jesse, who joined the National Guard when he was 18-years-old and who was excited about working on the F35 jets as an engineer.
For him, Mennier wants South Burlington city council members to reverse their decision.
"I have felt all along – and many other South Burlington residents have felt this way – that they don’t represent us," Mennier said. "Jesse was devastated by what I call fear-mongering and a vicious spread of misinformation."
Supporters of the F35 have accused Rosanne Greco for spreading much of that misinformation. Greco, a retired Air Force Colonel, is chair of the South Burlington City Council, which, she notes, isn’t obligated to take action on petitions.
"The four of us who voted [against basing the F35 in South Burlington] did so on behalf of the people who are living in that noise area and the fact that we will be losing up to 200 affordable homes that are being demolished, according to the FAA report, because of military aircraft noise," Greco said in a phone interview Thursday.
It’s still unclear what – if any – impact the Chamber’s petition and the council’s opposition will have on a final decision by the Air Force on where to base the planes. That decision is expected next month.