Santa Monica pilots will have to fly more quietly or face $500 fines and exclusion from the Santa Monica Airport if a new noise ordinance is enacted.
The City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would reduce the maximum noise limit from 100 decibels to 95 and enact enforcement procedures for violations.
The change would be made in a spirit of cooperation among pilots, neighbors and the city, a surprising situation considering the decades of controversy over airport noise.
The disputes date to the 1920s when the city Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance prohibiting pilots from flying during church services. Since then, there have been several lawsuits by residents over airport noise. The city has tried to ban jets and close the airport, and pilots have filed lawsuits to keep it open.
One year ago, an agreement between the city and the Federal Aviation Administration resolved longstanding disputes over airport noise. The agreement also authorized the city to reduce the noise limit from a maximum of 100 decibels to 95.
The proposed ordinance is part of the first comprehensive revision of the airport code in 15 years. The code regulates permits, helicopters, flight instructors, hangar rentals and aircraft maintenance. The proposed ordinance would give the airport director power to impose civil penalties. Without the new administrative procedure, the director would have to refer complaints to the city attorney's office for criminal prosecution.
If the ordinance is approved, a pilot who violates the noise limit will be asked to consult with the city's noise abatement officer and draw up a plan for compliance. If the pilot continues to violate the limit, the airport director could impose the penalties--$500 for each violation, exclusion from the airport or both. The pilot could appeal the decision to a city hearing examiner.
Some neighbors are still angry about airplane noise. Some pilots may find it difficult for their planes to meet the proposed standard.
But many of the factions seem satisfied, although cautious. "A number of pilots are unhappy, but the vast majority are willing to cooperate," said pilot Barry Schiff. "I haven't heard any serious objections to the noise abatement program."
"I now live under the flight path," said Councilman William H. Jennings, who at one time supported closing the airport. "With rare exceptions, I don't have any complaints" about the airport noise at the present level.
Eventually a list will be made of the kinds of airplanes that cannot conform to the 95-decibel limit, and they will be banned from the airport.
The new code also includes a two-year noise evaluation period while airport officials attempt to set lower noise limits for different kinds of aircraft. Pilots with aircraft that can easily make the 95-decibel limit may eventually have to meet a limit of 90 or 87 decibels.
The noise ordinance will be amended after two years to include the lower limits. During the evaluation period, the city will also be monitoring helicopter operations at the airport and will not allow new helicopter operations during that period.
Noise Abatement Officer Stephen Glass said that it might be difficult for a person on the ground to perceive the difference between 95 and 100 decibels, but the five decibels represent significantly more than a 5% reduction. Airport officials said that it is the cumulative reduction in noise that is important.
What the new ordinance "says is that all pilots using the airport have a responsibility to fly quietly, whether they are flying a single-engine Cessna 152 or a $2-million Learjet," said Airport Director Hank Dittmar.
Dittmar said that each month there are approximately one to three violations of the current 100-decibel limit and between 15 to 25 flights between 95 and 100 decibels.
Glass said he has been sending about 20 letters a month to pilots who have been flying at the 95 to 100 range, warning them that the city will be setting a 95 limit.
But Glass asserted that nearly all of the 550 airplanes at the airport should be able to make the 95 limit.
One pilot, however, said that some conditions might make it difficult to fly his Cessna 210 within the limit.
"On a hot day, with a low cloud cover, I might have to take half of the fuel out of my gas tank and four people out of the plane to get the plane off the field," said pilot Donald Brandsen.
Both Dittmar and Glass said that they may allow a grace period for pilots to fly more quietly. But they emphasized that if the pilots violate the proposed noise limit, they will be subject to the penalties.
Assistant City Atty. Shane Stark said it is difficult to tell if there will be more complaints filed against pilots, but he said the use of civil rather than criminal proceedings would make enforcement more efficient.
"It means you don't have to try somebody for a misdemeanor because they fly their plane too loudly. You cite them," said Councilman David G. Epstein. "If they continue to screw around, you tell them to take their plane somewhere else."
Some neighbors still appear concerned about the noise. "It's worse than ever," said Sydelle Wiles, who lives near the airport. The pilots "are flying jets around there . . . . They never abide by their agreements at the airports. Their attitude is, 'To hell with everyone else. We want to fly our jets.' "
Airport Commissioner Denise Dubroy, who lives near the airport, said the noise seems to have decreased. "I still have complaints," she said. "I live near the runway . . . . You really can't do anything about (the problem) unless you deal with the pilot as a policing agent. You should (treat pilots as you do drivers). That's not the route that's being taken. The route taken is to politely warn them and allow them to deal with it."
Pressure From Neighbors
Since World World II, residents have applied pressure on the city to reduce noise at the airport. In 1973, the city began passing ordinances, such as a curfew and a jet ban, a 100-decibel limit and a ban on helicopter training.
In a lawsuit filed by the Santa Monica Airport Assn. against the ordinances, a federal judge ruled in 1979 that the city could not ban jets but could maintain a curfew, the 100-decibel limit and a ban on helicopter training. A year later, the judge barred the city from lowering the limit from 100 to 85 decibels, which would have severely restricted use of the airport.
The focus then shifted to closing the airport. In 1981, after the Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights took over a majority on the City Council, the city attempted to close the airport and redevelop the 210 acres. The action led to more lawsuits and the compromise signed with the Federal Aviation Administration last January.
The agreement guaranteed that the airport would remain open until 2015, while allowing the city to regulate noise. The airport is being redesigned so that most of the noise-producing operations will be moved to the north side of the runway, away from residential areas.
The city has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for $2.5 million for repaving runways and building noise walls, drainage systems and a new administrative building. The design change will also free up 43 acres on the south side of the airport for development.