LONG BEACH — After a three-year search for a legal way to limit airline flights at Long Beach Airport, the City Council again appears headed for a showdown in court with airlines and federal officials who want a dramatic increase in commercial flights here.
The council will debate Tuesday a proposed ordinance that it hopes will reduce noise and stand up in court while limiting flights to substantially less than the 41 proposed by a city task force.
"I think we're going to have a court challenge no matter what we do, so the threat of a lawsuit is not frightening. It's reality," Mayor Ernie Kell said.
Riding on the council's decision this week may ultimately be municipal control of the airport itself, since the Federal Aviation Administration has consistently pressured the city to increase flights from the current 18 to at least 40 and perhaps 80 because of national transportation needs.
An FAA spokesman, in fact, warned in an interview last week that his agency almost certainly will sue the city if the council refuses to allow at least 40 flights at the airport.
No Choice Seen
"That would leave us no option other than to move ahead and challenge it," said Edward P. Faberman, FAA deputy chief counsel. "We think 40 is supportable, but we haven't seen anything that indicates below 40 is supportable."
As the council deliberates, it must also consider the concerns of hundreds of angry airport-area homeowners, who said at recent hearings that their property values, peace of mind and safety are at stake. Nearly 600 residents have filed airport damage claims against the city totaling $160 million, and hundreds more have threatened lawsuits if the council does not hold flights at current levels.
The Long Beach Unified School District and the Chamber of Commerce have also entered the fray. Educators argue that more flights will disrupt classes and hinder learning at 20 schools, while the chamber insists that additional flights will boost business and benefit most city residents.
Adoption of an ordinance on Tuesday, which Kell said is likely, would conclude a three-year effort to come up with a legally defensible set of airport noise rules.
In 1983, a federal judge struck down the city's noise ordinance, saying its flight allocation system was arbitrary and not supported by sufficient technical data. U.S. District Judge Laughlin Waters allowed an increase from 15 to 18 flights and gave the city time to draft better regulations. The council, at the urging of the FAA, then appointed a task force to study airport noise and produce the data on which new regulations could be based.
After 20 months of study, the task force in December forwarded a set of recommendations to the council that it said would reduce overall airport noise while allowing more flights, thus balancing the needs of nearby homeowners with those of the airline industry and the federal government. Airlines, about a dozen of which are on a waiting list to get into the airport, hailed the plan as a reasonable compromise.
But as a court-imposed July 28 deadline for a new ordinance nears, most council members have said they will reject the task force's main recommendation: that flights be allowed to increase in three increments from 18 to 41 if airlines can stay within a new, lower state limit for airport noise in residential areas.
The council does not want and probably will not approve anything close to 41 flights, Kell said. He favors the current 18-flight limit or maybe a reduction to 15, because the airport does not now meet the state noise standard, the mayor said.
"Knowing the mood of the council, they're not going to go for increasing flights," Kell said.
Other members said the council must take a stand to keep neighborhoods from being ruined by airport noise and to avoid losing control of the airport. Operators of other Southland airports--including Burbank, John Wayne in Orange County and Los Angeles International--have been forced to purchase hundreds of homes because of excess noise, they said.
"If we do this to ourselves, then it doesn't need to be done to us. I believe this (increase) would literally tear this city apart," Councilman Edd Tuttle, whose 8th District is most affected by airport noise, said at a recent meeting attended by about 1,000 hostile homeowners.
Councilman Warren Harwood added, "If we can't stop it here, I'm afraid the lid will completely come off that airport."
Council members have said, however, that they want to adopt the portion of the task force recommendation that would tie a new ordinance to a tougher state standard implemented Jan. 1 for airport noise in residential areas. That standard is accepted by the FAA.
41 Flights Possible
The task force concluded that by switching to quieter aircraft and changing flying methods, Long Beach could have 41 airline flights without exceeding that new state limit. (One flight consists of a takeoff and a landing.)