A crisis plagues 976 families in a working-class neighborhood of South Burlington, Vermont. Eighteen screamingly loud F-16 fighter bombers based at Vermont’s main airport are the cause. Worse, the number of families in crisis from this jet noise is set to sharply increase in two years when the Air Force says it will replace the F-16s with four-times-louder F-35 fighter bombers.
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The neighboring city of Burlington owns and runs the Burlington International Airport, even though that airport is fully located within South Burlington. The city council of South Burlington has so far restricted itself to adopting a series of polite resolutions regarding the health and safety of the 976 families living in tiny affordable homes in the screeching noise zone of F-16 fighter jets. But these resolutions were all dismissed by Vermont’s political elite who instead successfully lobbied the Air Force to bring on the F-35.
Nor did Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders come to the aid of the largely working-class residents living in the airport neighborhood of South Burlington. Both senators refused even to meet with residents, declaring jet-fighter basing a matter of patriotism or jobs.
These 976 South Burlington families have no vote, no representation and no influence over the Burlington City Council that effectively governs health and safety in their neighborhood — a situation flatly contradicting a Vermont Constitutional requirement that officers of government be legally accountable to the people they govern.
An Air Force report acknowledges that the F-16 jets “dominate” noise at the Burlington Airport and that “the contribution of civilian aircraft to noise is negligible compared to the military aircraft contribution.”
The most recent noise exposure report includes a map showing three extreme noise zones of increasing loudness surrounding the runway — and the locations of the 976 South Burlington homes and the Chamberlin School within those noise zones. One-third of South Burlington’s primary school children attend Chamberlin School.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 45 to 50 percent of the children exposed to the same noise shown in Burlington’s report suffer cognitive impairment: delayed reading and degraded concentration, memory and attention. Not all children living in the Burlington Airport’s high noise zones have been so harmed — but if one family’s children escaped, there is a high likelihood that their neighbor’s children have been harmed.
The members of Burlington’s own Board of Health spent several months in 2013 investigating health problems caused by noise at the level produced by military fighter jets. The Board heard testimony and reviewed research data related to this public health issue. The Board then adopted a resolution stating: “the Burlington Board of Health has concluded that noise has been associated with the following health effects: hearing loss, stress, sleep disturbance, heart attacks, hypertension and stroke, and delayed reading and verbal comprehension.”
However, the resolution also states that the “Burlington Board of Health jurisdiction is limited to the City of Burlington, Vermont.”
Thus, even though Burlington’s own Board of Health recognized and highlighted the cognitive and medical danger to children and adults living near the airport in South Burlington, the Board lacks jurisdiction to take action to protect the health and safety of those South Burlington citizens.
It should come as no surprise that Burlington’s leading politicians — and their children — live sufficiently far from the airport to avoid the danger.
As landlord, the Burlington City Council has the power to call up its tenant, the Vermont Air National Guard, and insist that no military equipment noisier than ordinary commercial jets shall be based at its airport. Doing so would prevent significant damage to the health or safety of many children and adults living or going to school near the airport.
But Burlington’s mayor is not motivated to lift the phone to make that call, because Burlington is eyeing huge profits from the noise. And the 976 affected families have no vote in Burlington and no one representing them on Burlington’s City Council.
How F-16 and F-35 Jets Turn Noise Into Money
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has long recognized the danger of high noise levels on health and safety. Since 1981, the FAA has run a program to reduce the number of people who live in airport high-noise zones. Under this program Burlington has so far obtained $57 million in grants from the FAA and used the money to purchase and demolish 200 of the affordable homes near the airport entrance in South Burlington.
As funded by the FAA grants, Burlington, the airport owner, offered the 200 South Burlington homeowners above-market prices for their homes. The offer also came with a substantial amount of relocation expense and moving assistance money for homeowners willing to sell and depart.
The FAA purchase and demolition program is a generous gift to the airport owner: Free of any cost to its own taxpayers, Burlington got to keep the now-vacant 44 acres in South Burlington on which those 200 affordable homes once stood.
Because of its prime location along the road facing the airport entrance, those 44 acres will become extremely valuable to Burlington and to developers if the South Burlington City Council changes its zoning from residential to commercial. South Burlington is pressured to make the zoning change to recoup substantial property tax losses the city suffered because of the demolition of the 200 homes.
But the conversion to commercial zoning depends on the noise level continuing to remain excruciatingly high as to preclude safe residential living. Patriotism and jobs are rolled out as pretexts, but the lockstep support Burlington officials, developers and leading state politicians give to F-16 and F-35 basing could well be explained by the way the outrageous noise of those jets can be turned into money.
Land beyond the wide strip of now-vacant land near the airport entrance is of less value for commercial development. That is why Burlington has less interest in acquiring additional FAA noise mitigation grants to buy out and relocate the 976 remaining South Burlington families still living within the F-16 noise danger zone.
Nor, to its credit, does the South Burlington City Council wish the city to lose any more of its stock of affordable homes.
Is there justice in leaving those 976 families to suffer in the F-16 fighter jet cognitive-impairment noise zone with no recourse to protect their children? Is there justice in replacing the F-16s with four-times louder F-35s as planned for 2019? According to an Air Force report, basing F-35 fighter jets will extend the child-endangering noise zone to add thousands more families: those residing in the ethnically diverse working class city of Winooski, located just one mile from the end of the runway.
In their defense, Burlington officials can reasonably argue that they act consistent with their fiduciary duty to their own citizens, including to maintain the financial health of Burlington’s airport. They can further reasonably argue that only the city of South Burlington has responsibility for the health and safety of South Burlington citizens.
South Burlington Has Powers — if It Would Only Use Them
Fortunately, the South Burlington City Council has heretofore unused powers that it could use to shape decisions made by Burlington to do what any landlord with a noisy tenant may be required to do: lift the phone and tell its tenant to stop making so much noise.
A federal regulation authorizes the South Burlington City Council to levy fees on airport operations, and each dollar so obtained would direct Burlington toward abolishing the incredibly noisy fighter jets from its airport while providing the funds needed to heavily insulate the 976 homes and Chamberlin School from the noise. So far, only Burlington itself levies such fees, collecting $4.50 per passenger enplanement for airport equipment and upgrades.
Burlington bean counters are likely to be sensitive to such fees lowering the competitive position of its airport with respect to airports in Montreal, Plattsburgh, New York and Massachusetts. Thus, if South Burlington imposes such fees to insulate homes from noise, Burlington could well find a compelling business reason to lift the phone.
In addition, South Burlington can use the state’s constitutional power of eminent domain to put a stop to Burlington owning the now-vacant land in South Burlington that drives Burlington’s F-16 and F-35 basing decisions.
Imposing sufficient fees on airport operations and taking over the vacant land will also support those Vermont Air Guard personnel who agree that their mission to protect and defend Vermonters is subverted by the harm that the fighter jets are inflicting on children and adults.
Now is an appropriate time for citizens to come together to support the 976 families and demand that the South Burlington City Council use its powers to protect health and safety. By imposing sufficient fees and taking over the 44 acres of vacant land, South Burlington can do more than give Burlington the financial incentives it needs to abolish F-16 and F-35 fighter bombers at its airport. By imposing such fees South Burlington will also free its airport neighborhood from the unaccountable, unjust and unconstitutional rule of Burlington.