Burlington, Vt., Prepares for Vote on F-35 Base

Jet noise, home values, and tricky ballot language all contribute to the controversy

An F-35 fighter / Getty Images

Residents of Burlington, Vt., go to the polls on Tuesday to vote on a non-binding resolution which, if passed, would direct the city council to ask the Air National Guard to find somewhere else to house an F-35 fighter jet base.

The primary objection from opponents of the base is jet noise, although numerous other issues play a role as well, in a struggle that stretches at least as far back as 2013. The vote comes despite the fact the Vermont Air National Guard has already invested $83 million in preparation for the jets.

"It has been ongoing for 10 years, and we've taken it very seriously," Lt. Col. Daniel  Finnegan told Vermont Public Radio. "When the first F-35 lands here in 18 months we intend to be fully trained and equipped to receive it."

The Burlington airport has already been the home to F-16s for years, and supporters say F-35s won't be too different, and argue the base will give a boost to the local economy that will help housing values. Opponents say the noise from the new jets will cause a decline in home prices.

Just as controversial as the issue itself is the wording of the ballot. Supporters of the base say the ballot language is deceitful, intended to trick some voters.

The question reads:

"Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to ‘protect the citizens of Vermont,' advise the City Council to: 1) request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and 2) request instead low-noise-level equipment with proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?"

The city council briefly considered using its powers to rewrite the ballot language, but ultimately rejected that idea, in part because of fears of a legal battle.

Brig. Gen. Joel Clark acknowledged the difficulty of the wording.

"It's inaccurate, and to us, a vote of ‘no' is support of this Vermont Air National Guard," he told Vermont Public Radio. "But I am not telling anybody how to vote. That is their right to vote ‘yes' or ‘no' as they choose."

Despite the non-binding nature of the vote, the website VTDigger.com unearthed three examples, in Florida, Alaska, and North Carolina, where vigorous citizen pushback appeared to cause the military to reduce or reverse previous basing decisions.

Campaign finance has also played an important part. Monies spent on the race are vastly smaller than even a congressional race, but, because the question is non-binding, parties that have waged ad campaigns and other get-out-the-vote efforts are not required to report any spending.