In a victory for Newport Beach and Orange County, the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday endorsed plans that maintain local noise limits at John Wayne Airport but raise the passenger ceiling to 10.8 million people a year by 2011.
The federal agency's decision supports a landmark federal court settlement reached in 1985 that established aircraft noise restrictions, limited airport operation hours, and originally capped the passenger volume at 8.4 million people a year. Local officials had feared the FAA might try to preempt local control of the airport.
The settlement, which ended a lawsuit by Newport Beach and two community groups over airport noise, was set to expire in 2005. Under the updated agreement signed by the city and the county, the deal remains in place until 2015.
"This is very significant and very encouraging," said Alan Murphy, director of John Wayne Airport. "The FAA addressed all the issues we asked them to address in the manner we wanted them to."
After months of discussion with airlines and local officials, the FAA concluded that plans for expanding John Wayne while maintaining local noise controls were consistent with federal law because they would not limit airport operations or affect aircraft safety.
FAA officials also determined that airport restrictions established by the 1985 court settlement predated the 1990 Airport Noise and Capacity Act, a federal law that prohibits local governments from restricting airport capacity.
Without the favorable FAA opinion, airport officials said the federal government would be free to sue the county if it tried to extend the 1985 court settlement beyond the 2005 deadline.
Murphy said the Newport Beach city attorney and lawyers for the two community groups that originally sued the county need to review the FAA letter to make sure they are satisfied with it. The groups are the Airport Working Group and Stop Polluting Our Newport. County attorneys already have approved the FAA opinion.
"The biggest concern we had was to get that FAA letter," said Newport Beach Mayor Steve Bromberg. "For the people of Newport Beach, this is a real quality-of-life issue."
Under the plan endorsed Tuesday, the number of gates at the airport will be increased from 14 to 20. The maximum number of the larger and noisier commercial flights will be raised from 73 to 85 per day, while the number of cargo flights will be doubled to four a day.
The proposal would increase airport capacity to 10.3 million people a year in 2003, and to a maximum of 10.8 million a year by the end of 2011. "For a concession on the cap, we have gotten significant assurances of protection for the community for another 15 years," said Assemblyman-elect Todd Spitzer, a former county supervisor whose district includes the landing approaches for John Wayne Airport.
Santa Ana City Councilman Jose Solorio praised the FAA endorsement, which will preserve the nighttime curfews. "