LONG BEACH — Although delaying a final vote until next week, the City Council expressed support Tuesday for a plan that could eventually allow commercial flights at Long Beach Airport to increase from 18 to 32 if aircraft noise is lowered and then kept within levels set by state law.
After an hourlong private session with the city's attorneys, several council members said they still favor the current 18-flight cap but do not think it is legally defensible.
They said they like a plan crafted by City Manager John Dever and his staff that would limit airport noise in several ways and impose tough fines on violators while not going as far as the 41-flight maximum recommended by a city-appointed task force in December.
The city is being pressured to allow more flights by airlines in an ongoing federal court case and by federal officials, who have threatened to sue if at least 40 flights are not approved.
"Everything considered, given the constraints of the court on us, I think this is a reasonable compromise," said Councilman Tom Clark of the Dever proposal. Clark, whose 4th District is greatly affected by airline traffic, has fought flight increases for nearly two decades.
Mayor Ernie Kell and Council members Marc A. Wilder, Eunice Sato and Warren Harwood also said they thought Dever's proposal struck a good balance between legal necessity and their desire to limit flights because of the effects on nearby homeowners.
Watch Effect on Neighborhoods
They stopped short, however, of endorsing the specific provision that would allow 32 flights if total aircraft noise stays within state limits. Under that provision, the City Council would review the noise ordinance in one year, when the number of flights would be no more than 26, to see how the increase has affected airport-area neighborhoods.
"I think we all want to maintain the current level, but I question whether it's legally defensible. I think it'll be somewhere around 30," said Kell.
And Harwood added, "This is a council that's looking to prevent control of the airport from being pulled away from us."
Council members emphasized a provision of the Dever plan that would require airport noise be brought within state limits in nearby residential areas before any flight increases would be allowed. In the short term that would mean a reduction in current noise levels and possibly a reduction in flights from 18 to 16, they said.
Once state-allowed levels were reached, flights could be increased in increments of two every three months, rather than eight at a time as recommended by the task force, and then only if quieter planes and operating procedures keep average noise levels under state limits. If noise went above state limits, flights would be decreased, they noted.
"This level (32 flights) will not be reached in a short period of time and may never be reached," Clark said.
But Councilman Edd Tuttle, whose 8th District is most affected by airport noise, said he is leaning against any increase in flights.
"The citizens are tired of being jacked around," he said. "My constituents say they don't want a little bit of this decided now and a little bit later. If they're going to be preempted (by the federal government), then they want to be preempted."
Tuttle said he wouldn't mind if Long Beach became the "test case" involving federal control over local airports.
But other council members said they thought the chance of prevailing in court would not be good if they insisted on only 18 flights, especially since a noise consultant to the city task force found that 41 flights would be possible within state law if current runway use is altered and if the airlines use quieter aircraft and operating procedures.
Dever, in his report, identified one way in which the task force noise data could be used to limit flights to fewer than 41. Dever said that if the city refuses to change its current use of the main runway by shifting private jets onto a secondary runway, only 32 flights would be possible within the state limits. The city can reasonable argue in court that its refusal to use runways differently is based on a policy to keep aircraft noise at or below current levels in all parts of the city, even in those areas that are now relatively noise free, the city manager said.
The validity of the city's new noise ordinance is expected to be tested July 28 in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters in Los Angeles.
The city's old noise-abatement ordinance, which set a flight limit of 15, was struck down by Waters in 1983 after six airlines filed suit. The judge ruled that the ordinance was arbitrary and was not supported by sufficient technical data. He then allowed an increase from 15 flights to 18 and gave the city time to draft better regulations. Those regulations must be based on data gathered by the task force, city officials have said.
Although the Dever plan gives the City Council a number of options, its key elements are: