Mayor: New JWA agreement could be days away

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry had two speeches ready for the Airport Working Group's annual meeting Wednesday night.

One would have answered looming questions about the new terms of John Wayne Airport's settlement agreement, which sets JWA's passenger and operational caps. The current agreement is set to expire in 2015.

For years, area residents eager to keep the effect of living in the shadow of a major airport at a minimum have closely watched the proceedings.

This week, Curry said, he was close to having something to tell them.

But he couldn't give that speech.

"We're not quite there," he told the audience at the annual meeting at the Balboa Yacht Club.

Still, he assured the group, an announcement about "an agreement that will continue the protection of our community" could be days away.

"I think we're very close, and I think you're going to be very proud," Curry said.

As for what exactly that deal will entail — whether JWA will be allowed to add flights or if someday more passengers could pass through its gates — that's been kept under wraps.

"Because it is litigation, it is very difficult to comment on the specifics," Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach said Thursday. "This has been one of these deals where we've been working, I think, as best as possible. But it's a tough deal. That's about all I can hint at until something's available."

According to the initial settlement, starting in 1990, the airport could see no more than 8.4 million annual passengers through 2005.

The average number of daily departures of larger, noisier, "Class A" aircraft was limited to 73.

Then, in 2005, those caps were bumped up following a negotiation process similar to the one that has taken place over the past year or so. The upper limit for annual passengers was changed to 10.8 million (a figure airport officials have said they aren't close to hitting) and average daily Class A aircraft departures was increased to 89.

The airport's curfews, which resulted from a county ordinance that actually predates the settlement by almost 15 years, will remain in effect as they are at least until 2020, because the Board of Supervisors agreed to revisit the ordinance five years after the settlement was slated to expire.

Parties to the original 1985 federal court settlement have worked since early last year to negotiate a new deal that will be acceptable to local jurisdictions and residents, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration.

JWA was able to "grandfather" in its activity, flight and passenger limits, even though they conflicted with the stipulations of the federal 1990 Airport Noise and Capacity Act, Courtney Wiercioch, deputy airport director of public affairs, said Thursday.

That meant that any new settlement terms couldn't decrease the airport's traffic caps — they could only limit growth.

"It's been tough to negotiate," Curry said Wednesday. "If you overreach, you run the risk of ending the whole agreement."

At a Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce event last week, Newport City Manager Dave Kiff also mentioned a potentially forthcoming announcement and warned that area residents will "have to allow a little growth."

He said the county and the city were waiting on word from the FAA before saying anything more.

While the parties to the settlement — which include the city of Newport Beach, Orange County, the AWG and the Stop Polluting Our Newport — have reached some consensus, they've asked the FAA to weigh in on whether they foresee any "regulatory hurdles" in the plan, Wiercioch said.

She said the groups are "hopeful we'll hear back from the FAA in the next week or two."

Then, she said, the airport, county and city can start the long environmental review and public comment processes required under the California Environmental Quality Act before sending the agreement back to the FAA for final approval.

In other words, Wiercioch said, there's still a long way to go before a new set of restrictions are locked in.

And once they are, how long can residents expect to rest easy before negotiations start again?

Wiercioch said she couldn't say. "That's one of the items being negotiated."

Twitter: @jillcowan

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