Long-Running Van Nuys Airport Noise Battle to Land in Federal Court


The latest sortie in the decades-long war over noise at Van Nuys Airport takes place Monday in federal court, where attorneys for aviation businesses and charter plane trade groups will challenge the city's limits on noisy jets at the nation's busiest general aviation airport.

The suit, brought by a group that includes five companies based at the airport, challenges the constitutionality of the city's strict limits on loud Stage 2 jets. The limits prevent all but about 50 of the older jets from being based at the airport after 2011.

The Los Angeles City Council imposed the regulations in April 2000 in response to residents who had complained the airport's other anti-noise measures, including a nighttime departure curfew and a voluntary "fly friendly" program, fell short of their goals.

But many airport neighbors say that preventing additional Stage 2 aircraft from being based at the airport will not help.

"There will be no reduction in noise," said Gerald Silver, president of the homeowner coalition Stop the Noise. "This had so many exceptions [that] the residents get zero out of this."

Monday's hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles will address the aviation companies' charge that the regulations violate the 14th Amendment's equal protection guarantee, said Bret Lobner, senior counsel with the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

The companies say the airport rules are unfair because they determine which planes can be based there and for how long without regard to the number of times they fly or whether individual flights violate noise limits.

"They're trying to put a cap on the amount of time a plane can spend at the airport, rather than addressing this in noise terms," said Andrew Plump, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

If the city wants to curb noise, he said, it should deal with specific violations rather than regulate a type of plane.

Lobner, who is handling the case for the city, said that like many California airports, Van Nuys exceeds state noise limits and operates under a variance issued by the state Department of Transportation. The latest three-year variance was issued in May 2000.

"We're going to say that the airport is adopting a regulation to control aircraft noise by prohibiting the addition of the noisiest aircraft in America," Lobner said.

Plaintiffs Say Rule Is Bad for Business

About 50 Stage 2 jets that are based at the airport--most of which were built before 1985--are exempt and can stay there as long as their owners can keep them flying. The rules allow companies to replace the noisy jets with similar models through 2005 though those replacement jets have to be substituted with quieter aircraft after 2011.

"We still believe the rule is a good compromise," said Stacy Geere, a spokeswoman at the airport, one of four owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles. "It balances the needs of the aviation business with the interests of community members."

Plump argues that the older jets are still relied on heavily for corporate travel and that limiting their use could hurt business at the airport, which contributes $1.2 billion a year and at least 10,000 jobs to the San Fernando Valley economy.

"This could really impact business [at the airport] in a big way," Plump said.

The companies that filed suit agree. Four of them are airplane charter services and one provides hangars and fuel for jets. They argue that the price difference between older jets and newer, quieter aircraft is measured in millions and could keep smaller companies, for whom Stage 2 jets are usually the entry-level option, from having a presence in Van Nuys.

"It's going to be bad, considering that six of the airplanes out of 20 we operate are Stage 2," said Gary Gilberts, assistant director of operations for Elite Aviation, one of the plaintiffs.

Anti-noise activist Silver and aviation company officials agree the small jets have a long life span and can grow more reliable with age under meticulous maintenance routines. But unlike the aviation companies, Silver bemoans the fact that these jets may be around Van Nuys for a long time.

"A Gulfstream [jet] is not like an old [Ford] Pinto," he said.

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