By Raymond Bender
San Diego County operates eight county airports, not including San Diego International Airport at Lindbergh Field, which the San Diego International Airport Authority (SDRAA), an agency created by state law, operates. These airports share one feature: though state and local airport zoning laws control airport land uses, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controls the airspace near airports.
The Dawn of the FAA’s NextGen System: More Noise
If you live near McClellan-Palomar Airport in North County, or in El Cajon, or in Point Loma (as well as in other communities on flight paths to Lindbergh Field), the FAA is no stranger to you. Over the last year, the FAA has promoted its airport Next Generation Satellite guidance system (NextGen). FAA Administrator Huerta’s support could be described at enthusiastically, unrelenting.
San Diego residents and residents across the U.S. disagree. They see (hear) more frequent and noisier aircraft overhead, which also increase neighborhood pollution and traffic. (Search “noise complaints faa nextgen” on your browser for repeated community complaints including “A Closer Look at How FAA is ‘Tone-Deaf’ on NextGen Noise Impacts,” Aviation Impact Reform, April 18, 2015. )
Can San Diego residents shrink increasing aircraft noise, pollution, and traffic? Many feel ignored after attending FAA NextGen workshops, which the FAA has billed as “Metroplex” workshops.
The FAA Rigged Noise System
In days of yore, courts protected residents from public nuisances, be they offensive slaughterhouses or candle-making tallow smells; incessant clanging, clattering, or banging of industrial machinery; or perhaps even the mere sight of a mortuary and stream of hearses at your front door.
Forgivably, yore-thinking lingers today in San Diego neighborhoods flooded with aircraft noise, pollution, and traffic. Logic says you should not have to bear an aircraft overhead every few minutes. Or, perhaps, since air flights grease modern commerce and recreation, the airport should at least pay for reducing the noise and pollution at your front door. Pay to add noise-reducing attic insulation and double or triple pane windows and perhaps periodically power wash house roofs and stucco.
Just one problem. FAA noise standards nix nuisance laws. When the FAA and local airport agencies prepare environmental noise analyses, they say airports will confine noise to 65 decibels or less. Noise comparison charts equate 65 decibels to heavy traffic about 300 feet away from you. In contrast, 110 decibels equates to a jet flying 1000 feet above you or a rock band concert.
What’s the hitch? The FAA guages noise by Day Night Average or Community Noise Equivalent Level (CNEL) methods. Say jets fly 2000 feet above your house every 15 minutes during the day but not night at a 90-decibel level. The FAA uses a 24-hour average to peg your noise level. If your daytime average were 80 decibels (remember the peak 90 decibel level does not last the entire hour) and the nighttime average (with any allowed FAA adjustment) is 40, then the 24-hour average is 60. In short, the FAA ignores how many truly noisy noise events you suffer.
For the reasons just noted, don’t expect the courts, the FAA, or local airport operators to coddle you. Especially since – remember the mantra – you bought a house knowing an airport was not far away.
But, you say, because state and local authorities control zoning, surely they can limit airport noise. For instance, by limiting airport operating hours or requiring aircraft to avoid “pedal to the metal” full thrust flights until the aircraft reaches a certain altitude. After all, isn’t that what the city of Newport does in Orange County?
Well, yes and no. Yes, Newport has an agreement to limit flight hours and certain aircraft operating conditions. But your community probably cannot. In 1990, Congress passed the Aircraft Noise and Capacity Act (ANCA) (49 U.S.C. § 47521). Generally, ANCA bars local mandatory noise limits on airports unless the airport had a limitation in place prior to November 5,1990 or a court-sanctioned limitation applied before October 1, 1990. [See 49 USC§ 47524(d)].
Is There an FAA Solution?
ANCA does allow communities to request a so-called FAA Part 150 noise study to review whether noise restrictions mutually agreed to between the FAA and local community may be imposed. [ANCA, 49 U.S.C. §47524(c)(1).] But as Carlsbad discovered when McClellan-Palomar Airport requested a 2006 study, the FAA focused mainly on noise measures that pilots would voluntarily accept, measures with no real penalty.
Slim, None, and Local Airport Politician Accountability
For the reasons above, you have already met your first two options for limiting airport noise: Slim (FAA-agreed restrictions) and none (court enforcement). Your only other options – at least as to the eight county airports – are the citizen’s petition and the ballot box.
Several times every year, the Board of Supervisors approves county Airport Division, requests (1) to expand airport capacity and (2) to seek 90% FAA grants to pay for the expansion. Usually, county avoids any meaningful environmental analysis. For instance, at McClellan-Palomar Airport in North County, county is preparing its first EIR in 40 years for its pending 2017-2037 Palomar Airport Master Plan.
In theory, council members and supervisors vote for projects that best serves the community. In reality, it is the business community which fills campaign coffers thereby sacrificing community betterment to political expediency. (See, for example, Will 2018 Election End Carlsbad Cronyism?)
In 2018, various council members are up for reelection as is the Supervisor for the 5th Supervisorial District for the communities near Palomar Airport. San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond is running for the seat to-be-vacated by termed-out Supervisor Bill Horn. If you favor airport expansion, vote for Desmond. If you prefer to be inconvenienced once or twice a year by having to drive to Lindbergh rather than enduring 365 days of more noise, pollution, and traffic that results from airport expansion, think again.
Ray Bender, San Marcos resident; retired City Attorney; J.D. UCLA; MBA UCLA Anderson School of Business.