City Fearful It Is Losing War on Airport Noise


Ken Zion lives on a Los Cerritos street where homes are worth upwards of half a million dollars and the windows rattle when the jets roar overhead.

Kenneth E. Morrow made his retirement home in stately Bixby Knolls, never dreaming that an evening ritual of jet thunder would make it impossible to watch television in his den from 9:30 to 10.

In spite of the Long Beach Airport, property values in nearby neighborhoods have remained high, primarily because the City Council strictly controlled the number of flights that take off and land.

But the city's grip is slipping. For seven years, Long Beach has been at war with the airlines over whether a community of quaint houses and tree-lined streets can live peacefully with an airport bursting at the seams and begging to grow.

The airlines say it can, the residents say it cannot, and a Los Angeles federal court judge says it must.

Now it appears the war is nearing an end, and city officials say this may be one they cannot win.

"We are caught between a rock and a hard spot and a harder spot and another rock and there is no way we are going to come out of this a winner," said District 5 Councilman Les Robbins. "You can't please everybody." The airport lies in his district.

Indeed, no one was pleased last week when the council gave preliminary approval to an airport noise control ordinance to replace the one declared unconstitutional nearly a year ago by U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters.

Waters has forbidden the City Council from ever again limiting the number of flights in and out of the airport, the very restriction residents say has preserved their neighborhoods for so many years.

The proposed ordinance would limit total noise generated at the airport to 65 decibels, the rough equivalent of an office with several ringing telephones and a clacking typewriter.

That means that if airlines can fly 60 planes at the same noise level that they can fly 40, the added flights must be permitted.

The airlines have already said that is too much control while the residents complain it is not enough. Meanwhile, Waters is expecting an ordinance in his courtroom by Nov. 13, and if he isn't pleased, city officials fear he will take airport control from the city altogether.

Clearly, the outcome holds serious political consequences.

"If old Jeff Kellogg doesn't get his butt in gear, Jeff Kellogg is going to be out of a job," Zion said of the city councilman, whose district is near the airport.

But the judge has prohibited the very thing the residents demand--a cap on flights. In fact, it was Waters who last February ordered that daily flights be increased from 26 to 40, and homeowners have been grumbling ever since.

According to Rod A. Dinger, senior noise control specialist at the airport, the average number of daily complaints shot from 10 to 70 when the flights increased.

"The noise is just onerous. We leave the windows open in the den and we can't watch television or even converse for 15 seconds of dead time every time a jet takes off," Bixby Knolls resident Morrow said.

"Tom Housel, member of the newly founded Community Airport Council, said homeowners are not about to lie down for a federal court judge.

"We've taken as truth that the judge is the only factor," Housel said, "but there is an economic side, there is a nuisance side and there are citizens upset enough to create some serious economic havoc."

But Robbins says the council's hands are tied. Unless the city wins the appeal it has filed to reverse the judge and reinstate the old law, the city has no choice but to obey.

"Next to God," Robbins responded, "a federal court judge probably ranks No. 2 in power and authority. That is one thing the community around the airport doesn't understand."

Long Beach and its airport have been locked for years in a bad marriage that provides both sustenance and grief. And neither cares to leave it.

To the community's benefit, the airport is home to the McDonnell Douglas Corp., the city's largest employer. Recent studies commissioned by the city at the court's order showed the airport contributed $306 million in local revenue in 1986.

For the airport, Long Beach is a potential gold mine in travel profits. Los Angeles International and Orange County's John Wayne Airport are stretched to their limits, while Long Beach operates at half its capacity, said Los Angeles attorney John J. Lyons, who represents several airlines suing the city.

As a result, about 1.1 million potential passengers go unserved yearly at an estimated loss of $24 million in airline revenue, the city study's show. "Long Beach is part of the national air transportation system and they cannot drop out now," Lyons said. "They can't say they like McDonnell Douglas because it employs 32,000 people, but America West can't take off and land there."

But a recent city-commissioned study documented what the council has always known: Long Beach can't stand noise. The study concluded that residents are more sensitive to jets than those who live near airports in other cities. Oddly, experts say Long Beach Airport is among the most quiet of its kind. Its fleet of aircraft, at the city's insistence, is the least noisy known to technology. Even though the daily number of flights has increased from 15 to 40 over the years, the total yearly noise level is lower than it was 16 years ago, a report by the city attorney's office concluded.

"Ten years ago, there was twice the amount of noise there is today even though the number of flights has increased, and they are still not satisfied," said Lyons, who last week told council members that they "would never turn this city back into an Iowa cornfield."

The Iowa image is one thing Long Beach--a would-be "international city"--is trying to shake. But city officials say it is possible to be worldly and still run a hometown airport.

"There was a limit on flights and this city still grew by leaps and bounds," Robbins said.

Ordered to carry its share of the regional transportation burden, to stop discriminating against the airlines and to control noise without limiting flights, the council gave tentative approval to a noise-control ordinance it hopes will at least satisfy the judge.

It would limit the total noise level by giving commercial airlines, small planes and commuters a "budget" of how much noise they can make. If they stay within the budget, they can add flights, an approach attorney Lyons said is "unheard of."

He said the airlines want Long Beach to go the way of other municipal airports to control noise, including paying residents to put up with it, soundproofing houses and rezoning neighborhoods to phase out homes.

The council dismissed soundproofing as "preposterous" and never considered the rest.

"This isn't Antarctica," Robbins said. "This is Southern California, where people leave their windows open and barbecue in the back yard."

Unless the city wins its appeal, which is expected to be decided this fall, the days of airport control as Long Beach once knew it are gone forever, city officials concede.

"The city cannot seek to turn the area surrounding the airport into a 'Sylvan Glen,' " Deputy City Atty. Roger P. Freeman wrote in a report to the council.

Still, the proposed ordinance is one of the strictest noise control laws in the country, experts say--stricter than Burbank or John Wayne airports which, although slightly smaller than Long Beach, accommodate 50% more jets, Lyons and city officials said.

Whether the city can preserve the quality of life remains to be seen. Expert testimony presented to the court and council conflicts on the value of property around an airport.

While one expert said an airport is one of many factors that determine home values, another said Long Beach communities probably thrived because buyers relied on tight city control.

"Look at LAX," Bixby Knolls resident Morrow said. "All low-grade industrial under the flight path. Homes were condemned. You can't live with that many flights. LAX proved that."

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