LONG BEACH — The city's new airport noise ordinance failed its first court test this week when a federal judge said he had "serious questions" about its legality and refused to allow its implementation.
U. S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters, saying the 3-year-old Long Beach Airport case has dragged on far longer than expected, also indicated that he may soon allow an increase in daily airline flights from 18 to 26.
"What is relatively clear at this point . . . is that some new flight activity is justified at Long Beach Airport," Waters said. He promised to act promptly on the airlines' motion for an immediate increase of at least eight flights.
In reaction, the City Council said Tuesday that it would appeal an award by Waters of new flights if that decision comes before he acts on the new ordinance as a whole. That final decision is not expected until January, when the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to submit its analysis of the new plan.
Councilman Thomas Clark said Waters should also be aware of heightened concern about more flights at Long Beach Airport, which is ringed by homes and schools, in light of last week's collision between a small plane and an airliner over Cerritos.
Waters' ruling Monday was in response to a city request that he lift his injunction that has controlled airport flights since July, 1983, when he found an old noise ordinance to be arbitrary because it was not supported by sufficient technical data.
The new ordinance, city lawyers told Waters, is based on such data. It is, they argued, a compromise that considers both the effects of airport noise on nearby homeowners and legal pressure by airlines and the federal government to increase flights to at least 40 because of national transportation needs.
The ordinance would allow airline flights to increase slowly from 18 to 32, but only if average aircraft noise is lowered and then kept within state-endorsed levels for adjacent residential areas.
It 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 and FAA-funded task force that studied airport noise for almost two years.
Waters' strongest objections to the new ordinance were in areas where it differed from the recommendations of the city's own task force. "Significant portions of that study were rejected by the city," he noted.
The city's refusal to adopt a task force recommendation to move private jets from the airport's main runway to a shorter one along the San Diego Freeway was "rather troubling," Waters said. The move would have shifted enough noise away from residential neighborhoods to industrial areas along the freeway so that 41 flights, not 32, would have been possible within the state noise guidelines.
The City Council has said it wants to keep the loud private jets on the main runway because it doesn't want to increase noise levels on one side of the airport so it can lower them in another. Lee L. Blackman, the city's lawyer, also argued that only the FAA could dictate runway use.
In a second main argument, Blackman contended that a 32-flight limit was reasonable because hundreds of lawsuits brought against the city by nearby homeowners cite the number of flight "intrusions," not average noise, as a reason for legal action.
While the averaging of all noise provides an effective gauge by which noise can be limited, "it is not the whole story," Blackman said. "It doesn't tell you how many times (classroom) teaching has been interrupted . . . or barbecues in the backyard have been interrupted."
Airline attorneys, however, said that Blackman's intrusion argument was without support in law, and the judge seemed to agree.
Waters specifically cited that fact, as well as the city's refusal to switch runway use for private jets and "other inadequacies" in the new ordinance in refusing to implement it.
He said the ordinance "obviously is going . . . to require a lot of study" and is not yet a reasonable balance between the interests of Long Beach and national transportation needs.
Blackman said the city will have to wait until Waters rules--probably within a week--on the airlines' request for more flights before deciding what to do next.
Attorneys for the airlines said Waters' ruling on Monday was easier than the one still facing him. If he allows more flights, he must decide which airlines will get them, or turn that decision over to the Long Beach council for resolution.
Most airline lawyers, frustrated by what they see as Long Beach's go-slow tactics in the case, asked Waters to make the allocation himself. "Anytime we have referred anything to the city for study it has become a black hole of resolution," said attorney John Lyons of America West.
Allocation of Flights