The state noise control regulations for airports will become more restrictive at midnight Dec. 31, but neither Van Nuys nor Burbank airports will become any quieter as the new year begins.
A change in the regulations, however, appears to be setting up yet one more confrontation in the long-running battle between airport administrators and groups of anti-noise homeowners.
The noise protesters accuse airport executives of manipulating the rules to escape the intent of the state law and to avoid reducing the number of planes using their airports.
Airport administrators say they are doing the best they can, but airport noise is a difficult problem, involving factors from aircraft design to zoning to federal laws, which they cannot resolve by simply issuing commands.
The standard that goes into effect Jan. 1 "is not technologically feasible for a large airport with residences nearby," said Brett Lobner, the deputy Los Angeles city attorney who prepared Van Nuys Airport's request to be exempted from the new standard.
The quarrel will probably end up as the subject of a trial-like public hearing by the California Department of Transportation later this year, providing a new forum for the noise protesters.
"Absolutely, we're going to demand a hearing," said Don Schultz, president of Ban Airport Noise, a group formed to combat noise from Van Nuys and Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena airports.
Charged Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn.: "The airports have no intent of ever complying with the law." Close also represents an alliance of five homeowners groups from Studio City, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sun Valley and Burbank.
'Long Overdue to Start Complying'
"The airports are long overdue to start complying," said Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, who for some time has been pointing to the coming change in state regulations in arguing with Van Nuys Airport authorities that they are expanding the airport's operations beyond legal limits.
Van Nuys ranks as the third busiest airport in the nation in the number of takeoffs and landings, which have been running at about 500,000 annually. It ranks as the busiest general aviation, or non-commercial, airport anywhere.
"The only acceptable option is a massive cutback in operations," Silver said, estimating it would take "about a 50% cut" to meet the new state standard.
Airport executives respond that they have already put many anti-noise measures into effect and that aircraft noise will be no greater after the rule change goes into effect, no matter what the change does to legal definitions.
At the heart of the dispute is a change involving the complicated, abstract method by which airport noise is measured under California law. The unit of measurement is the CNEL, or Community Noise Equivalent Level.
A CNEL is the daily average of decibel readings recorded by monitoring stations near airports, weighted by a mathematical formula designed to reflect the fact that noise is more annoying at night. Aircraft noise registered between 7 and 10 p.m. is multiplied three times before being figured into the average, and noises from flights between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. are multiplied 10 times.
The results are used to draw imaginary lines around airports, a "noise footprint" marking the boundaries of the areas where the average CNEL reaches a common level. A 70 CNEL line defines the point where noise readings inside the line are higher than 70 CNEL, and those outside are lower.
The footprint is a statistical tool used to come to grips with aircraft noise, which fluctuates from moment to moment. In real life, the footprint has no fixed existence. A listener moving from one side of the boundary to the other would find it difficult to detect any difference in noise levels. The real footprint shrinks to nothing when no aircraft are landing or taking off, and balloons out to a far larger area when a fully loaded jet with a heavy-handed pilot is climbing rapidly away from the field.
In real life, the footprint shifts with the wind and the direction of aircraft traffic.
The daily CNEL averages are further processed into a quarterly average, which the Aeronautics Division of Caltrans uses to administer the state airport noise law.
The law sets a maximum average CNEL for residential areas and schools near airports. Industrial, commercial and agricultural areas, as well as the airport itself, are exempt. Airports are judged by the size of an area of "incompatible usage" they generate, meaning residential or school property where the average CNEL is above the state limit. The goal of the law is to eliminate all incompatible usage, either through reductions in noise or changes in land use.
Set at 80 decibels in 1975, the limit was reduced to 75 in 1976 and then to 70 in 1981. The level drops to 65 on Jan. 1, the final stage of the law.
"A decibel reading of 65 is about the level that interferes with your speaking to someone a few feet away, noisy enough to cause you to raise your voice, but not loud enough to drown you out," said Robert Beard, a noise abatement officer for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, which administers Van Nuys Airport.
Comparable to Rock Band
By comparison, he said, a plane flying low overhead may register 80 decibels, and a jetliner taking off nearby--or a rock band in a nightclub--registers about 90 to 100 decibels.
Passage of the state law, which went into effect in 1971, did not necessarily mean airports complied with its stipulations, however, or even that they were obliged to. The law includes a provision for airport operators to petition Caltrans' Division of Aeronautics for a variance--in effect a permit allowing the airport to continue operating even though the CNEL level is above the maximum in neighboring residential areas.
The variances are good only for one year, but can be renewed.
Caltrans in turn can attach conditions to the variance, requiring airport authorities to take steps to reduce the "incompatible" zone, ranging from installation of sound-muffling insulation to buying up homes and replacing them with industrial buildings.
Most of the state's major airports operate on variances. They include Los Angeles International, Burbank, San Francisco International, San Jose International, Ontario International airports and Lindbergh Field in San Diego, said Jack Kemmerly, head of the Division of Aeronautics. Burbank Airport, with many homes nearby, has been operating under variances about nine years.
Under the new regulations, the "incompatible" area around Burbank Airport will rise from its present level of 126 acres to 500 acres, said Victor J. Gill, spokesman for the airport. Since last spring, Burbank has had an application pending for yet another variance extension. But it has not been decided whether there will be a state hearing because the airport, owned by Burbank, Pasadena and Glendale, is already involved in a noise reduction program directed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Gill made it clear that Burbank Airport administrators prefer to concentrate on the federal program because it involves representatives of all interested groups, ranging from homeowners to federal and local officials to aircraft owners, and therefore is "more convivial, less adversarial" than the state hearing process.
Burbank Airport, Gill added, has made progress reducing noise primarily by encouraging airlines to use newer, quieter jets. He said 80% of flights from Burbank are now made by the quieter planes, a figure he said is matched nationwide only by John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Van Nuys Airport met the state regulation when the standard was 70 CNEL. The noise footprint fell on airport-owned land. But airport officials expect the new standard of 65 will extend the footprint well into the surrounding neighborhood.
The Department of Airports is working on an estimate of the incompatible land, said Beard, the noise abatement officer. Although the work is incomplete, he said, the amount is expected to be less than 45 acres.
Van Nuys Airport spokesman Thomas Winfrey said the zone will probably cover homes and apartment buildings for several blocks east and west of the airport, plus the neighborhood directly south of the runway, from Sherman Way to Victory Boulevard, the northern boundary of the Sepulveda Basin recreational area.
Report on Footprint
Technically, Beard said, Van Nuys will not need to apply for a variance until officials submit the first report to the state that the noise footprint extends into residential areas. That report, based on readings in the first three months of the year, is not due until May 15.
"That's semantics--playing with the words," complained Silver, of the Encino homeowners group. "They're going to run the red light and say they aren't breaking the law until the cop pulls them over."
The city attorney's office, however, is not waiting for the May report. Anticipating that Van Nuys cannot meet the new standard, an application for a variance was sent to Caltrans on Dec. 3, said Lobner, the deputy city attorney.
The application, Lobner said, argues that the airport brings economic benefits to the city and the San Fernando Valley, and cites efforts by the airport to reduce noise. These include limits on touch-and-go operations (a combination landing and takeoff to improve pilot skills), running jet engines for maintenance purposes and the banning of takeoffs between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. by aircraft that generate more than 74 decibels, except for military, police and emergency flights.
Action Against Pilots
The request notes that the city has brought civil actions against more than 20 pilots for violating the noise curfew, he said. The penalty ranges from $750 for a first offense to $3,500 for a third offense.
Airport administrators said that noise has been reduced because the number of flights from Van Nuys has declined steadily in recent years. From a high in 1976, when there were 618,694 take-offs and landings, the number dropped to 575,271 in 1984 and is expected to drop to about 490,000 this year, according to Van Nuys spokesman Winfrey.
Homeowners in the area, however, say the reduction is unimportant because their protests are aimed mainly at jet flights. Airport administrators said they do not have a count of flights by jet aircraft.
Caltrans must now decide whether to schedule a public hearing,. A hearing will be held if any interested party asks for one, Kemmerly said.
While a hearing is virtually certain to occur, its date is uncertain--in part because Caltrans expects to have to hold several such hearings. The department is expecting similar requests for variances from Long Beach, Oakland International and John Wayne airports because none of them are expected to meet the 65 CNEL standard either, he said.
Judges Face Backlog
Because administrative law judges are already heavily booked, Kemmerly said, the hearings probably won't be held until three to six months after a request. The administrative law judge presides over a hearing that is much like a civil trial. The judge's recommendation is then sent to Kemmerly's office.
The airports continue operating as before while the request for a variance is processed.
Leaders of the homeowners groups complained that, in the past, Kemmerly's office routinely granted and renewed all variance requests. "There's no plan ever to comply," Close said. "They just go in every year and get another variance."
Kemmerly has his own opinion of airports' problems in complying with the 65 CNEL standard.
"I don't believe 65 is technologically feasible today, but we're moving in the right direction and we've made significant strides," he said. "But there are other mitigation measures that can be taken. At San Jose, they've acquired a great many residences and converted the land to open space or light industrial use."