FARMINGTON — Most residents at a hearing Tuesday voiced concerns that the Air Force’s plan to add new fighter jets to its fleet based in Burlington, Vt., will disrupt western Maine’s quiet, rural lifestyle and scare away tourists vital to its economy.

Among those opposed to the plan was Joanne Dunlap, a retired teacher who lives in Rangeley and owns a variety store in the quaint Franklin County town.

Dunlap, 69, is already troubled by the number of military flights allowed in Maine’s airspace, saying just before the hearing started that she is startled whenever jets fly over her house.

“You come here for peace, quiet and tranquility, and it’s definitely none of those things when a jet flies by your back window,” she said.

Her fears were shared by a majority of about 60 people who turned out for the public hearing Tuesday night in a lecture hall at University of Maine at Farmington. Others spoke out against the negative effects on tourism, calling the Air Force’s plan a threat to the thousands visiting the area’s unique outdoor attractions.

Resident Doug Topper, however, called on the crowd to consider that the fighter jets defend them. The 60-year-old speech pathologist from Mason Township noted the next-generation aircraft is filling gaps in the national missile defense strategy.

“Your real estate isn’t worth much if you can’t defend it,” he told the audience.

The Air Force’s proposal seeks to make changes to military flights over parts of Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties. It is looking at several sites nationwide to use as operating bases for the new F-35 fighter jets, with the station in Burlington as one of two preferred options.

The other preferred site is Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah. Both plans require an environmental impact statement to assess the affects on everything from wildlife to regional economies.

The Air Guard Station in Burlington already conducts missions in western Maine airspace, known as Condor 1 and 2. The Air Force last month added Tuesday’s hearing after residents and elected officials complained that initial hearings on the plan were scheduled to be held only in Vermont and New York.

For some at the hearing, the last-minute addition of the hearing fueled their skepticism about the plan, as well as another proposal seeking to lower the minimum altitude that military jets are allowed to fly in the same Maine airspace.

Although the Air National Guard is overseeing the other proposal, which would lower the flight ceiling from 7,000 feet to 500 feet, members of a grass-roots group known as Western Maine Matters are worried about a domino effect leading to future changes.

Emily Ecker, 59, is a member of the group she described as representing local people and organizations with a variety of concerns, ranging from environmental advocates to real estate agents.

The social worker from Woodstock claimed the Air National Guard assured the group other military branches wouldn’t be affecting the proposal to lower the flight ceiling. She added that group members raised the questions during past hearings about that proposal, which remains mired in the planning stages since its origin about five years ago.

“We’ve always been concerned once they opened (the guard station) up to changes, other branches of the military would come in, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” she said.

Other members of the group on Tuesday also called on the Air Force to commission a separate independent study on the economic impact, asking them to go beyond what is included in the environmental impact statement required by federal law.

Air Force officials on Tuesday assured the crowd the plan to add the F-35 jets was separate from the proposal to lower the flight ceiling. They noted that even if the other plan moves forward, the Air Force would have to go through another environmental impact study before F-35 jets could conduct the lower-altitude training missions.

Air Force officials noted that there is no flying between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. planned for the F-35 jets, which are described as the military’s premiere fighter jet for the next several decades.

The proposal to add the new jets to the fleet at the Burlington station also states they will be flying 80 percent of the time above 23,000 feet, differing from the existing F-16 fighter jets that spend much more time at lower altitudes.

If the proposal to lower the flight ceiling is approved, fighter jets would spend about 2 1/2 hours per month flying below 1,000 feet, according to the National Guard. Officials still are trying to complete an environmental impact statement for that plan.

As for the plan to add the F-35 fighter jets, Air Force officials said, if approved, they would not begin operating at the Burlington station for another three to eight years.

The public hearing process is a required step as the Air Force works to finalize the environmental impact statement. Public comments about the preliminary study will be gathered at the hearings and via written submissions, with a review of the comments before a final decision on submitting the study is expected to come late this fall.

The Air Force recently extended the deadline to submit written comments to June 20.

They can be sent to:

Mr. Nicholas Germanos

HQ ACC/A7PS

129 Andrews St., Suite 337

Langley AFB, VA 23665-2769