Wednesday, May 22, 2013
FARMINGTON -- More Maine residents soon will get a chance to attend a public hearing on a proposal to add a new fighter jet to the Burlington Air Guard Station in Vermont, which conducts missions in western Maine airspace.
The Air Force decided this week to add a public hearing in Maine, prompted by a request by Maine's two Republican U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who asked why initial hearings on the plan were scheduled only for Vermont.
Despite potential negative effects on part of Maine -- consisting of changes tied to military flights over parts of Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties -- the closest public hearing had been scheduled for Littleton, N.H., according to a letter the senators sent to Air Force officials.
The Air Force now plans to set up a Maine hearing to give more residents an opportunity to voice their concerns and learn more about the proposal, an Air Force spokeswoman said Thursday. Details about the hearing are expected to be released in soon.
The public hearing process is a required step as the Air Force works to finalize an environmental impact statement for its effort to establish operational bases for the F-35 Lighting II fighter jet.
The proposal is looking at several sites nationwide and considers the station in Burlington, Vt., as one of two preferred options, according to a draft environmental impact statement filed by the Air Force.
Public comments about the preliminary study into the plan's effect on the environment will be gathered at the hearings and via written submissions. The Air Force will review the data and is expected to make a final decision on submitting the study sometime this fall.
According to the draft impact study filed last month by the Air Force, the fighter jets would be flying in existing military operating areas in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine if the Burlington option is picked.
The areas in western Maine are known as Condor 1 and 2, which consist of airspace in most of Oxford and Franklin counties and some of Somerset County.
The F-35 is described by the Air Force study as its premier fighter jet for the next several decades. There are several variations of the supersonic single-engine jet, with the differences based on its ability to take off under varying conditions.
Snowe and Collins have raised concerns that the F-35 is much louder than the military aircraft now flying in Maine's airspace. They asked about this and other potential problems tied to the proposal in a joint letter they sent to the Air Force on April 26.
The Maine airspace affected by the proposed change includes four ski resorts, about 47,700 acres of American Indian reservations and 144 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the letter states.
The plan to add the fighter jet also may affect an Air National Guard's proposal to lower the minimum altitude that military jets are allowed to fly in the same Condor 1 and 2 airspace, the letter states.
There is a separate draft environmental impact statement for lowering the flight ceiling, but it doesn't address the addition of F-35s and may have to be revisited, the senators' letter states. They are worried the ongoing impact study tied to the flight ceiling issue may have to be adjusted to avoid violating federal environmental policy regulations.
Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, was unable Thursday to provide answers to questions about the F-35 proposal. She said officials working on the project will address the questions posed by the senators at the public hearing and answer any residents' questions
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