Council Confronts Sound and Fury in Airport Battle
After a three-year search for a legal way to limit airline flights at Long Beach Airport, the City Council again appears headed for a showdown in court with airlines and federal officials who want a dramatic increase in commercial flights here.
The council will debate Tuesday a proposed ordinance that it hopes will reduce noise and stand up in court while limiting flights to substantially less than the 41 proposed by a city task force.
“I think we’re going to have a court challenge no matter what we do, so the threat of a lawsuit is not frightening. It’s reality,” Mayor Ernie Kell said.
Riding on the council’s decision this week may ultimately be municipal control of the airport itself, since the Federal Aviation Administration has consistently pressured the city to increase flights from the current 18 to at least 40 and perhaps 80 because of national transportation needs.
An FAA spokesman, in fact, warned in an interview last week that his agency almost certainly will sue the city if the council refuses to allow at least 40 flights at the airport.
No Choice Seen
“That would leave us no option other than to move ahead and challenge it,” said Edward P. Faberman, FAA deputy chief counsel. “We think 40 is supportable, but we haven’t seen anything that indicates below 40 is supportable.”
As the council deliberates, it must also consider the concerns of hundreds of angry airport-area homeowners, who said at recent hearings that their property values, peace of mind and safety are at stake. Nearly 600 residents have filed airport damage claims against the city totaling $160 million, and hundreds more have threatened lawsuits if the council does not hold flights at current levels.
The Long Beach Unified School District and the Chamber of Commerce have also entered the fray. Educators argue that more flights will disrupt classes and hinder learning at 20 schools, while the chamber insists that additional flights will boost business and benefit most city residents.
Adoption of an ordinance on Tuesday, which Kell said is likely, would conclude a three-year effort to come up with a legally defensible set of airport noise rules.
In 1983, a federal judge struck down the city’s noise ordinance, saying its flight allocation system was arbitrary and not supported by sufficient technical data. U.S. District Judge Laughlin Waters allowed an increase from 15 to 18 flights and gave the city time to draft better regulations. The council, at the urging of the FAA, then appointed a task force to study airport noise and produce the data on which new regulations could be based.
After 20 months of study, the task force in December forwarded a set of recommendations to the council that it said would reduce overall airport noise while allowing more flights, thus balancing the needs of nearby homeowners with those of the airline industry and the federal government. Airlines, about a dozen of which are on a waiting list to get into the airport, hailed the plan as a reasonable compromise.
But as a court-imposed July 28 deadline for a new ordinance nears, most council members have said they will reject the task force’s main recommendation: that flights be allowed to increase in three increments from 18 to 41 if airlines can stay within a new, lower state limit for airport noise in residential areas.
The council does not want and probably will not approve anything close to 41 flights, Kell said. He favors the current 18-flight limit or maybe a reduction to 15, because the airport does not now meet the state noise standard, the mayor said.
“Knowing the mood of the council, they’re not going to go for increasing flights,” Kell said.
Other members said the council must take a stand to keep neighborhoods from being ruined by airport noise and to avoid losing control of the airport. Operators of other Southland airports--including Burbank, John Wayne in Orange County and Los Angeles International--have been forced to purchase hundreds of homes because of excess noise, they said.
“If we do this to ourselves, then it doesn’t need to be done to us. I believe this (increase) would literally tear this city apart,” Councilman Edd Tuttle, whose 8th District is most affected by airport noise, said at a recent meeting attended by about 1,000 hostile homeowners.
Councilman Warren Harwood added, “If we can’t stop it here, I’m afraid the lid will completely come off that airport.”
Council members have said, however, that they want to adopt the portion of the task force recommendation that would tie a new ordinance to a tougher state standard implemented Jan. 1 for airport noise in residential areas. That standard is accepted by the FAA.
41 Flights Possible
The task force concluded that by switching to quieter aircraft and changing flying methods, Long Beach could have 41 airline flights without exceeding that new state limit. (One flight consists of a takeoff and a landing.)
But council members noted that illegal levels of airport noise now reach about 1,600 Long Beach homes with only 18 daily flights. No urban airport in California, regardless of the type of aircraft used, meets the new standard and the state has done nothing to force compliance, they said. Tuttle has recommended a reduction to 12 flights until the standard is met here, and then reducing flights whenever the standard is exceeded.
Tuttle warned the council: “We keep talking about strict compliance to a state standard that no one has ever enforced. If the council adopts the 65 CNEL (state standard), it had better make sure it has the right to (cut) flights if it is exceeded.”
The new 65 Community Noise Equivalent Level is a measure of the amount of noise from all types of aircraft averaged over a 24-hour period, with evening flights counted three times in the averaging and night flights 10 times. A 65 CNEL is an average noise level of 65 decibels, which compares with a 50-decibel reading for the average Long Beach neighborhood during the day. Noise from airliners taking off in Long Beach is nearly always between between 88 and 98 decibels.
Easy to Meet
Several noise experts, including the city’s own consultant and one at Douglas Aircraft Co., said in interviews that the 65 CNEL standard can easily be met here.
And John F. Rhodes, vice president for operations at Jet America, said it could be met quickly if Alaska Airlines stopped using a noisy Boeing 727 for one flight and if airline pilots reduced full power on takeoff at 1,000 feet rather than 1,500 feet.
Further substantial noise reductions could be made by using the Boeing 737-300 jetliner or the small, super-quiet BAe-146, the airport task force found. The use of those aircraft and the louder but still modern Douglas MD-80s have allowed Burbank and John Wayne airports to more than double their flights while simultaneously reducing noise levels, airport spokesmen said. Airlines flying into Long Beach use mostly MD-80s.
Despite such probable reductions in overall noise, council members Jan Hall and Wallace Edgerton have argued that they should not be bound to 41 flights. Regardless of noise averages, they say, each flight is an intrusion into residents’ lives.
“We have to be reasonable, but I think there is scientific justification for evaluating frequency of flights and interruption, not just CNEL,” said Hall. “It’s certainly worth testing in court.”
Lee Blackman, a private attorney who represents the city in airport litigation, agreed with Hall.
“If the City Council’s action is reasonable and it’s based on the analysis of the technical noise questions, then it will be defensible. There are analyses in the environmental impact report addressing such matters as amounts of time noise exceeds certain levels . . . , so there is a technical justification for limiting the number of (flights).”
An attorney for an airline that uses the airport said, however, that such a position would invite lawsuits from the airlines and intervention by the FAA. An ordinance that would limit airport noise to 65 CNEL, and eliminate flights when that sound level is exceeded, and at the same time not allow for increases in flights within 65 CNEL limits, would probably lose in court, he said.
Definition of Arbitrary
If the city were to limit flights to 25 or 30, instead of 41, “I think that would be the definition of arbitrary,” said the attorney, who added that his airline is very sensitive to publicity and who asked not to be identified.
The FAA, Faberman said, doesn’t give much weight to arguments that life-style intrusions can be considered when setting flight limits at airports.
“It’s very difficult to run an air transportation system when you have those kinds of limitations being thrown into it,” he said. “We’re hopeful they will see the light and be more realistic.
“And I would proffer that maybe the CNEL could be raised,” which would allow many more than 40 flights, he added.
Faberman said the FAA would argue that a limit of less than 40 flights is an improper restriction on interstate commerce, violates the Federal Aviation Act and is not consistent with agreements signed by the city in accepting FAA grants.
A stipulation in those grant agreements requires airport operators to act reasonably in setting flight limits, he said.
No Move to Refuse
The council has said it might refuse to accept any more federal airport grants, which have provided the city with about $500,000 a year. But it has taken no formal action. Even if applications for the grants were stopped immediately, the city would be bound by current grant agreements to cooperate with the FAA for the next 20 years, Mayor Kell acknowledged.
Deputy City Atty. Roger Freeman, who specializes in airport law, said there is no clear legal precedent on whether an airport can limit flights on the basis of CNEL or put a cap on the number of flights. “The two things we’re looking at are kind of untested areas,” he said.
Airport-area homeowners have found little solace in assurances that a strictly enforced 65-CNEL standard would reduce the total amount of noise to which they are subjected--even with 41 flights. The problem is the number of times flights interrupt a person’s day, they say.
“It’s already a hell of a problem. You stop talking and you can’t hear when one of those things goes over. And if they start flying 30 or 40 it’s going to be that much worse,” said Elbert W. Mead, a California Heights resident who lives under the flight path.
Officials at airports that have significantly reduced average sound levels while increasing flights say resident complaints have skyrocketed with each jump in flights.
“When the flight levels were fairly steady the complaints were based on noise, but now we’re hearing, ‘There are just so many over my house all the time, one every five minutes,’ ” said Christine Edwards, assistant chief of operations at John Wayne Airport, where flights have been increased from 41 to 85 in 14 months.
After the most recent increase--from 55 to 85 flights in April--complaints began to pour in, Edwards said. “In the last month or two we’ve had about 500 complaints, and ordinarily over the whole year we’ll have 600 to 800,” she said.
SOUND LEVEL EQUIVALENTS IN DECIBELS 30 db--normal conversation 40 db--nighttime noise in urban area 50 db--light traffic 100 feet away 60 db--traffic noise from nearby freeway 70 db--freight train at 100 feet 80 db--jackhammer at 50 feet 90 db--subway train at 20 feet 100 db--average rock concert City ordinance sets daytime airliner noise limits at 93 db on takeoff and 106 db on landing. The jets sometimes exceed those limits.