- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The U.S. Air Force is being sued by a coalition of residents in Vermont, who say the decision to base new F-35 fighters out of a local airport will be a nuisance and a potential safety risk.

The residents and a group called the Stop the F-35 Coalition filed a lawsuit against Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in federal court in Vermont on Monday, saying that placing the jets at Burlington International Airport would violate the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

The action is an escalation of what has been a heated and long-running battle between the Air Force, which prefers the Northeast U.S. site because of its location and its uncongested airspace for training flights, and residents, who say the noise associated with the jets will reduce property values and pose a health risk.

The Air Force announced its decision in December despite vocal opposition from the local community. The lawsuit charges that officials sidestepped two environmental impact statements that showed the jets will produce unacceptable levels of noise in residential areas.

Pentagon and Federal Aviation Administration standards state that noise exceeding a 65 decibel threshold — the level the jets are expected to reach — is incompatible with residential areas.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek declined to comment on the court case, noting only that the service was aware of the litigation.

James Dumont, the Vermont-based attorney who is representing the hundreds of plaintiffs taking part in the lawsuit, said his clients felt obligated to pursue legal action after the Air Force offered only vague plans to mitigate the sound of the jets.

In addition, the plan was misleading, Mr. Dumont said.

“The democratic process that was supposed to happen with full disclosure did not happen because disclosure was, in many ways, a sham,” he said.

Not only was the general public largely cut out of the decision-making process, but the plan hinged on a comparison between the noise that an F-16 jet makes and the noise that an F-35 jet makes, despite the fact that the base will cease to carry F-16 jets in the future, Mr. Dumont said.

“They are junking the F-16s at the Burlington airport, whether the F-35s come here or not,” he said.

The lawsuit charges that the Air Force failed to conduct the requisite “hard look” environmental policy action, failed to consider the socioeconomic impact that the jets would have on nearby residents and did not examine how the expected noise levels would affect the use of historic properties — which could be damaged by excessive vibrations — as homes.

As a result, Mr. Dumont’s clients stand to suffer noise and health risks, decreases in property value and the possibility of accidents if the jets — whose safety record has not been established — are deployed to Burlington International Airport, according to court documents.

The plan, by which 18 of the jets will be based with the Vermont Air National Guard beginning in 2020, has the backing of Burlington’s mayor and the state’s Senate delegation.

This is not the first time that a group of individuals has taken legal measures to counter an Air Force decision to host the noisy F-35 jets at a base close to residential homes.

In 2009, citizens of Valparaiso, Florida, sued the Air Force after it announced a plan to fly its jets out of Eglin Air Force Base and won. Eventually, the Air Force settled the lawsuit by agreeing to examine basing alternatives for the jets, limiting the number of aircraft that would be flying out of the area and scaling back on the use of a runway that directs air traffic over the town.

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