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F-35s in Boise? 'We Don't Know What We Don't Know'

The city of Boise and a grassroots neighborhood group are in a dogfight over proposed mission

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Listen to enough people argue about the possibility of an F-35 mission coming to Gowen Field in Boise and you'll soon realize the only common ground you hear is an agreement that only a fully vetted, Boise-based scientific analysis will reveal how the mission might impact the livability of the community. The divide of opinions over the proposed mission is already as wide as the runway at Gowen Field is long. As an example, comments on an informal online poll by Boise Weekly were strident. "Don't like the noise? Don't live near the base," wrote Mark Dewey. "It's the sound of freedom, baby," wrote Todd Woodell.

State of Idaho and City of Boise officials—from Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and Mayor Dave Bieter on down—have voiced full-throated support for keeping the Idaho Air National Guard airborne above Gowen Field. Both Otter and Bieter winged their way to Washington, D.C., this past March to lobby on behalf of Boise, one of five cities on the U.S. Air Force's shortlist, each vying to be the home base for somewhere between 18 and 24 F-35 jets.

A number of citizens, primarily from the Vista neighborhood in Boise, are doing some lobbying of their own. They've created a group called "Citizens for a Livable Boise," punching holes in the effort to lure the F-35 mission.

"It's a terrible thing. We'll never get used to it, and if it comes here it would tear this community apart," said Monty Mericle, retired Idaho Power engineer and CLB member.

Officials at Boise City Hall said they had never heard of Citizens for a Livable Boise before the F-35 debate.

"We really can't tell how many people are actual members," said City of Boise spokesman Mike Journee. "It appears to be a a small group of people, inserting themselves between the city and the citizens in this community that we've been trying to communicate with. And quite honestly, we're disturbed by the fact that we can't get the right information to a larger number of people who have legitimate concerns about this issue."

Neither Journee nor any other representative from the city attended a June 27 event sponsored by CLB that filled the downtown Boise library auditorium to standing-room-only capacity.

"Squeeze in folks. But don't take these three seats here in the front row," said one of the event's organizers, pointing to three empty chairs. "These have been reserved for representatives from the City of Boise, Boise Airport or the Idaho Air National Guard, but it appears they're not coming."

Journee said city officials had no intention of sending official representatives to the event.

"A few, very fervent opponents have hijacked those meetings," said Journee. "We have heard on a number of occasions that there are a number of folks who are trying to get some good information on the mission, but because of the atmosphere, they're fearful of speaking out."

Journee said the "level of hyperbole" coming from CLB surrounding the F-35 mission has reached such a fever pitch that city officials "are perplexed as to how best manage the situation."

"They continue to push out falsehoods, trying to drown out what may be contrary to their opinion," said Journee. " We've heard that they say the city is going to move in and condemn 1,300 homes and bulldoze them. We've heard that some said children's ears are going to bleed because of the noise. It's all completely ridiculous."

City officials weren't the only ones absent from the June 27 event.

"Is there any media here?" shouted one of the event's organizers to the packed assembly.

For the record, there has been ample media coverage on the community debate over the F-35 mission in the Treasure Valley, and the Idaho Statesman continues to feature a steady stream of coverage on the issue. CLB members, however, were none too pleased when the Statesman editorial board endorsed the F-35 effort this past April. "We'll do our part to send a clear message that we welcome the F-35's," read the editorial. "We think our future depends upon it."

"We don't need the media. We are the media," shouted one of the attendees at the CLB event.

Many speakers who were handed a microphone at the event—and several others who didn't wait for a microphone to shout out their concerns—said they had already heard and read enough to trigger their opposition.

Jet-Fueled Feud

"It occurred to me a while ago that a lot of us are smarter than any one of us," said John Glerum, CLB member and moderator of the June 27 event. For more than two hours, Glerum facilitated a quick-paced discussion, including how the F-35s might have a negative impact on wildlife in the region, how home valuations might decrease and how the overall mission might be a general "annoyance" to Boise.

"The F-35 is one of the loudest jets ever used by the military," said Mericle. "And the number of homes that would be impacted by this keeps changing. We heard 80 homes; then we heard 105; we even heard 270. And you could never put in enough windows in your home to drown out the noise. The only real mitigation would be to purchase and demolish those homes."

"The F-35 is terrible for the Boise Bench," echoed Dave Kangas, realtor and longtime officer with the Vista Neighborhood Association. "I've read studies that say there would be anywhere from a 12.5 to 25 percent devaluation of homes."

As Kangas, Mericle and other speakers continued for two hours, still more late-arriving attendees tried to wedge into the auditorium and the temperature rose with the heat of the rhetoric.

"Even if I didn't live in the Hillcrest neighborhood, I still feel a moral obligation to alert the community about what will happen to children exposed to the noise created by the F-35 jets," said Gwynne McElhinney, a veteran speech/language pathologist with the Boise School District. "There would be irreversible hearing loss and learning challenges throughout their lifetimes."

McElhinney has spent decades helping hearing-impaired school children all across Boise. Speaking at a more calmer setting than the CLB event—a serene playground across from Owyhee Elementary School in the Vista neighborhood—her emotions still ran high as she spoke about what she said would be the dire impact of F-35 jets taking off from runways at Gowen Field less than a mile away. According to city officials, the take-offs would be limited to 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon on weekdays, with no take-offs at all on weekends, but McElhinney said it's not about minutes: It's about the cumulative effects of sound over weeks, months and years.

"Take a look at these children at the playground here today. They're probably somewhere between 2 and 5 years old and right now, I'm guessing that their hearing levels are really, really good—very acute and much sharper compared to an adult," she said, pointing to a group of kids filling the mid-morning air with laughter. "When I look at these children and think of all of the children at this school and in this neighborhood, I think of something called 'the precautionary principle.'"

The precautionary principle has been used formally by global economists since the early 1980s, but is actually more akin to the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," or "Better safe than sorry."

"The precautionary principle says that when the health of humans and the environment are at stake, it may not be possible to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action," said McElhinney, who added Boise shouldn't wait for a long list of studies on the F-35 before taking precautions. "Here's the bottom line: There shouldn't be any compromise on this issue. We must absolutely protect children from hearing loss."

McElhinney took a big breath, smiled at the children in the playground and then turned, fixing her gaze on Owyhee Elementary School.

"What is the true cost of a child's hearing? It's incalculable. Is it a million dollars? Is it more?" she asked. "I'll tell you right now that if the F-35 is indeed coming to Boise, we better conduct baseline testing of every child's hearing so that we have a benchmark to look back upon."

Over at the headquarters of the Boise Independent School District, officials said they won't reach any conclusions of their own on the F-35 until official impact studies, specifically tailored to Boise, are completed.

"While we are aware of the potential impact of the F-35 mission on the community, the Boise School District is committed to gathering all the facts," read a statement from the district. "With the upcoming Environmental Impact Study that will be released later this year, the District will be able to provide feedback appropriately to the U.S. Air Force."

But the Air Force hasn't yet announced exactly when it might cull its shortlist of five potential cities, including Boise, to its top two favorite communities to host the F-35 mission, a decision that will trigger a federally funded Environmental Impact Study. City of Boise officials say the results of that as-yet-unscheduled EIS should be the overriding factor in why, or even if, Boise should support the F-35 mission coming to Gowen Field.

"One of the biggest challenges right now is that opponents of the F-35 want city officials to answer all their questions right now," said Journee. "Look, we aren't experts on the F-35. We've never done that kind of analysis. That's an analysis that would involve the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the National Environmental Protection Act. It's a very thorough process with an extraordinary amount of public input. And that EIS will only begin once the Air Force is ready to pick its preferred communities for the F-35 mission."

Journee added he's particularly irked that Citizens for a Livable Boise has been painting Mayor Dave Bieter as tone deaf to what they claim is a threat to their lives and livelihoods.

"I would ask the residents of our city to have some faith in a man who has long been its strongest advocate, and to please let this process play out," said Journee. "If there was anything close to the ridiculous scenarios that are being repeated by some people, the mayor and city council would say, 'Thanks, but no thanks' to the Air Force. 'Move on. We've got better things to do.'"

Journee added that city officials also weren't thrilled when they read comments from Dr. Kevin Cahill, Boise economist with ECONorthwest, who questioned the city's pursuit of the F-35 mission in a May 9 op-ed for The Idaho Statesman and made further remarks in a Boise Weekly June 12 Citizen interview.

Cahill said an earlier analysis touting the economic benefits of the Air National Guard to the Boise area—nearly 2,800 direct- and indirect jobs, and an annual $155 million to the local economy—was flawed.

"That's incredibly misleading," Cahill told BW. "The study included the benefits but none of the costs to the community. It doesn't account for any negative impacts."

Journee argued the study Cahill was referring to was not an analysis on the F-35s.

"He's mistaken in thinking that the economic study was about the F-35s, it wasn't," said Journee. "I would point out to him that the study was about the existing Idaho Air National Guard's mission at Gowen Field involving A-10 jets."

Meanwhile, Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg said she has been anxious to share as much information as she can with groups of interested citizens about what the city knows, doesn't know and wants to know about the F-35 mission.

"We don't know what we don't know. A lot of the fears that are being stirred up out there seem to be based on incomplete or inaccurate information," said Clegg. "I don't necessarily think the analysis that is out there is flawed. But it may be incomplete."

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