Hearing Could Decide Airport Expansion Suit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every morning, the sound of airplanes departing Burbank Airport jolts Valley Village homeowner Lori Dinkin out of bed as well as any alarm clock.

It begins at 7 a.m. and continues intermittently throughout the day, ending as late as 2 a.m. and intruding on her life like a boisterous next-door neighbor.

"There's no way to sleep, and God help you if you're sick in bed," said the 75-year-old president of the Valley Village Homeowners Assn. "It's bad enough when you're well. . . . Your peace has been totally disrupted."

Worried about the potential for even more noise as the airport gains popularity, Dinkin has joined three other San Fernando Valley homeowners groups and the city of Los Angeles in a lawsuit seeking to halt construction of a new airport terminal.

The airport's operating board, known as the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, wants to quadruple the size of the present 163,000-square-foot terminal to accommodate the 10 million passengers expected to fly in and out of Burbank in 2010.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration has pressured airport officials to replace the 64-year-old building because it is too close to the east-west runway.

But the new terminal will lead to noise pollution that was not acknowledged in an environmental impact report completed by airport officials last year, neighbors and Los Angeles officials have alleged in the lawsuit.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien in January ordered the airport authority to redo the environmental impact report, which is required under state law for building projects with the potential to significantly affect the environment.

After studying the issue again, airport officials reached the same conclusion they had the first time: The new terminal will not lead to a significant increase in aircraft noise.

Officials who operate the airport also repeated their earlier finding that the number of passengers using the airport will continue to grow with or without a new terminal. Thus, any increase in air traffic will occur regardless of whether the terminal is quadrupled in size.

But opponents claim the new environmental report is insufficient, and O'Brien will hear oral arguments from both sides Monday. If the authority wins, it could begin design work on the new terminal immediately.

No matter who wins, the losing side can appeal, which could delay progress on the multimillion-dollar project for up to two more years.

"This legal stuff is getting ridiculous," said Brian Bowman, president of the airport authority, which is made up of nine commissioners representing Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena. "What the city of L.A. is doing is primarily trying to harass us. That's all they're trying to do."

It is the third lawsuit filed by Los Angeles city officials--acting on behalf of residents in the southeast San Fernando Valley--against the airport authority since 1977. In each instance, the city has disputed the adequacy of the airport's environmental reports.

In the first lawsuit, the Los Angeles City Council sought to block the authority's purchase of the airport site. The case was settled in 1977. The deal allowed the authority to buy the land from Lockheed Air Terminal, while airport officials agreed to take "all feasible and necessary" steps to comply with state noise standards, among other things.

Ten years ago, Los Angeles again took Burbank to court, seeking to head off plans for a doubling of the airport's size. That expansion was canceled when the authority could not arrange for purchase of the needed land.

This time, lawyers for the city of Los Angeles contend that the airport authority failed to comply with the court order, allegedly by producing an updated environmental report that misstates federal noise standards and fails to provide proper remedies for noise pollution.

If the authority wins the case, it will be able to proceed with the design of the new terminal to accommodate 10 million passengers and 150 flights per day, Bowman said. If it loses, the authority would be forced to return to the drawing board for a new environmental report, while continuing with the present terminal, which handles 90 flights each day and 4.7 million passengers each year.

At the heart of the dispute is the proposed 670,000-square-foot terminal, boasting nearly twice the current number of aircraft gates.

Keith Pritsker, a deputy city attorney, contends that a new, larger terminal invites more travelers to use Burbank Airport than might otherwise come.

But airport officials say passenger counts will continue to grow partly because of Burbank's convenient location and crowded conditions at Los Angeles International Airport.

"Is it responsible public policy to knowingly build a terminal building that is vastly under-designed for the number of passengers we know will come through the door?" asked airport spokesman Victor Gill.

Burbank Airport's operating revenues for the 1994-95 fiscal year are projected to be $56.4 million.

Last year, about 56,000 flights by commercial airliners were made to and from the facility. The vast majority take off to the south and circle east over such neighborhoods as North Hollywood, Valley Village, Studio City and Sherman Oaks.

Homeowners groups in those areas joined the city's lawsuit in 1993. For years, they have asked airport officials to divert more planes to the east--over Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena.

But the FAA has banned aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds from taking off to the east because the airport's present terminal lies just 312 feet from the runway and must be 750 feet away to comply with federal safety regulations.

The Air Line Pilots Assn. has taken a similar position of avoiding commercial flights in that direction for a number of safety reasons.

"It's a matter of physics," said Richard Russell, a former spokesman for the group. "If the pilot is using good sense, he will take off over the longer (north-south) runway."

Another point of contention is the complicated method by which airport noise is measured under California law, known as the Community Noise Equivalent Level.

Surrounding Burbank Airport are 15 noise-monitoring stations with microphones that record aircraft noise and feed the data into a centralized computer system.

Imaginary lines are then drawn around the airport indicating the areas where the readings reach various average levels in a given year. A 65 CNEL contour, for example, encompasses the area in which all average readings are 65 decibels or above.

Under state law, airports are required to reduce the number of homes, schools and hospitals affected by aircraft noise with soundproofing programs, easements and acquisitions, among other things--as long as they are within the 65 CNEL contour.

But because the goal is difficult to achieve, Burbank Airport and most other airports in California operate under special permits known as variances, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Airport officials have spent thousands of dollars to insulate nearby Luther Burbank Middle School for sound, a program that Principal Donna Coffey says has worked well. Three others--Glenwood Elementary School, St. Patrick's School and Mingay Adult School--will be next. Similar work is expected to begin soon on the 1,764 homes within the 65 CNEL contour.

After a new terminal is built, airport officials contend, the 65 CNEL contour is not likely to grow very much.

"I just don't have sympathy for people near the airport," said Richard Simon, the airport authority's attorney.

"They bought their homes cheaply," he added. "They realized--they knew in their hearts--they got a bit of a bargain and they took advantage of the opportunity that the proximity to the airport afforded them, and they've forgotten that."

Residents living outside the boundary argue that they are affected just as much by aircraft noise but are not recognized under state law.

"In other words, we deserve what we get because we live in the proximity of the airport?" Dinkin asked. "If Mr. Simon would like to buy me a house in an upscale neighborhood that has the same square footage and all the same amenities, I will be happy to move."

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