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City Fearful It Is Losing War on Airport Noise

October 22, 1989|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Zion lives on a Los Cerritos street where homes are worth upwards of half a million dollars and the windows rattle when the jets roar overhead.

Kenneth E. Morrow made his retirement home in stately Bixby Knolls, never dreaming that an evening ritual of jet thunder would make it impossible to watch television in his den from 9:30 to 10.

In spite of the Long Beach Airport, property values in nearby neighborhoods have remained high, primarily because the City Council strictly controlled the number of flights that take off and land.

But the city's grip is slipping. For seven years, Long Beach has been at war with the airlines over whether a community of quaint houses and tree-lined streets can live peacefully with an airport bursting at the seams and begging to grow.

The airlines say it can, the residents say it cannot, and a Los Angeles federal court judge says it must.

Now it appears the war is nearing an end, and city officials say this may be one they cannot win.

"We are caught between a rock and a hard spot and a harder spot and another rock and there is no way we are going to come out of this a winner," said District 5 Councilman Les Robbins. "You can't please everybody." The airport lies in his district.

Indeed, no one was pleased last week when the council gave preliminary approval to an airport noise control ordinance to replace the one declared unconstitutional nearly a year ago by U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters.

Waters has forbidden the City Council from ever again limiting the number of flights in and out of the airport, the very restriction residents say has preserved their neighborhoods for so many years.

The proposed ordinance would limit total noise generated at the airport to 65 decibels, the rough equivalent of an office with several ringing telephones and a clacking typewriter.

That means that if airlines can fly 60 planes at the same noise level that they can fly 40, the added flights must be permitted.

The airlines have already said that is too much control while the residents complain it is not enough. Meanwhile, Waters is expecting an ordinance in his courtroom by Nov. 13, and if he isn't pleased, city officials fear he will take airport control from the city altogether.

Clearly, the outcome holds serious political consequences.

"If old Jeff Kellogg doesn't get his butt in gear, Jeff Kellogg is going to be out of a job," Zion said of the city councilman, whose district is near the airport.

But the judge has prohibited the very thing the residents demand--a cap on flights. In fact, it was Waters who last February ordered that daily flights be increased from 26 to 40, and homeowners have been grumbling ever since.

According to Rod A. Dinger, senior noise control specialist at the airport, the average number of daily complaints shot from 10 to 70 when the flights increased.

"The noise is just onerous. We leave the windows open in the den and we can't watch television or even converse for 15 seconds of dead time every time a jet takes off," Bixby Knolls resident Morrow said.

"Tom Housel, member of the newly founded Community Airport Council, said homeowners are not about to lie down for a federal court judge.

"We've taken as truth that the judge is the only factor," Housel said, "but there is an economic side, there is a nuisance side and there are citizens upset enough to create some serious economic havoc."

But Robbins says the council's hands are tied. Unless the city wins the appeal it has filed to reverse the judge and reinstate the old law, the city has no choice but to obey.

"Next to God," Robbins responded, "a federal court judge probably ranks No. 2 in power and authority. That is one thing the community around the airport doesn't understand."

Long Beach and its airport have been locked for years in a bad marriage that provides both sustenance and grief. And neither cares to leave it.

To the community's benefit, the airport is home to the McDonnell Douglas Corp., the city's largest employer. Recent studies commissioned by the city at the court's order showed the airport contributed $306 million in local revenue in 1986.

For the airport, Long Beach is a potential gold mine in travel profits. Los Angeles International and Orange County's John Wayne Airport are stretched to their limits, while Long Beach operates at half its capacity, said Los Angeles attorney John J. Lyons, who represents several airlines suing the city.

As a result, about 1.1 million potential passengers go unserved yearly at an estimated loss of $24 million in airline revenue, the city study's show. "Long Beach is part of the national air transportation system and they cannot drop out now," Lyons said. "They can't say they like McDonnell Douglas because it employs 32,000 people, but America West can't take off and land there."

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