Federal circuit court rejects petition challenging FAA aircraft noise initiative | January 11, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - January 11, 2017

Federal circuit court rejects petition challenging FAA aircraft noise initiative

by Dave Boyce

Efforts aimed at reducing noise in the skies above Portola Valley, Ladera and Woodside as commercial aircraft head into San Francisco International Airport were dealt a setback recently by a three-judge panel in the U. S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A related development, however, may give cause for optimism.

The Federal Aviation Administration in November 2015 issued the "FAA Initiative to Address Noise Related Concerns in Santa Cruz/Santa Clara/San Mateo/San Francisco Counties," a plan to optimize use of Bay Area airspace, concluding that it would not cause significant noise impacts above Peninsula communities.

Four Peninsula residents, including the now deceased James Lyons of Woodside and with the assistance of Portola Valley attorney Vic Schachter, filed a petition in May 2015 claiming that the FAA had been "arbitrary and capricious" and had used a "flawed and unlawful process" in preparing the initiative.

On Dec. 23, 2016, the court denied their petition, writing that the FAA did not prejudge environmental impacts as alleged, was not arbitrary and capricious in estimating future flights and flight tracks, properly assumed that its actions would not increase air traffic, and properly determined noise levels as the number of fights increases.

The petitioners' lawyer, Thomas V. Christopher, said his clients haven't yet decided on whether to appeal. "We're obviously disappointed," he said. "I really think that we did our best. We put our best foot forward. We made the arguments as well as we could."

Boundaries stretched

In a related development, the FAA is now in possession of a 43-page report with suggestions on addressing aircraft noise above the Peninsula and the South Bay. The report's author, the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, was a panel of 12 elected officials and 12 alternates from noise-affected communities in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

The committee was organized at the behest of the counties' congressional representatives, Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, and chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

Go to tinyurl.com/gm32c6a for a copy of the report.

Issued in November, the report represents six months of deliberations with Glen Martin, the FAA's Western-Pacific Region regional administrator, along with abundant public commentary. The effort included three community meetings, 10 working meetings and five technical briefings. The FAA is expected to respond early in 2017.

The committee was responding to six "feasible" noise-reduction actions proposed by the FAA. The committee did address those six, but added 17 more. Also added: five long-term issues, such as aircraft speed and noise measurement methods, and three process issues, such as ensuring compliance by pilots and air-traffic controllers.

"We really stretched the boundaries of what they expected us to do," said committee member and Portola Valley Councilwoman Ann Wengert. "We didn't necessarily accept that their ideas of feasible were the only possible solutions. Their feasible solutions were limited."

The deliberations elicited activism and thoughtful commentary from well-informed members of the community, Ms. Wengert said. "It was incredibly intense," she said, adding that "it was a ton of work in a very short time."

The most common emotion she experienced, she said, was frustration over "not being able to make an immediate change to give people relief. ... There's a great sense of anger and frustration and hopelessness (in the public) that was transferred to us. It increases your desire to make as many substantive changes as you could and particularly changes that are going to stick, that are going to be lasting changes."

One recommendation affecting Portola Valley, Woodside and Ladera: that pilots and air-traffic controllers comply with the 8,000-foot minimum altitude when crossing the Santa Cruz mountains above Woodside, as specified in a 2001 agreement between the FAA and Ms. Eshoo.

The FAA hasn't even been following its own agreements, which undermines its credibility, Ms. Wengert said. "How can we believe they will do what they say?" she asked.

The committee paid special attention to night flights, Ms. Wengert said, because it's at night that new flights will be added to the mix. It will be up to the FAA to cooperate with the communities, and it will probably require congressional oversight, she said.

Asked if she thought the committee and the FAA were on the same page, she said it was hard to tell. "They'll never say 'Yes' to anything," she said. "I think we were all impressed with the amount of time they put into it. They certainly invested time like I've never seen them do."


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