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Squabbles Stall Airport Expansion in Burbank : Aviation: Political quarrels over noise and traffic keep vision of larger, more modern facility out of reach.


BURBANK — Fifteen years after it was proposed, the dream of a new terminal at Burbank Airport appears no closer to reality than it was back then--when annual passenger loads were half the current levels and the little-known airfield was perceived as a backwater.

Even though nearly 5 million passengers a year crowd the 65-year-old terminal, political squabbles over noise and traffic keep the vision of a safer, more modern, more spacious facility out of reach. It may be well into the next century before any construction begins.

But there is little disagreement that something must be done.

The existing airport is close to bursting during heavy travel periods such as now, the week before Christmas. The Federal Aviation Administration has said again and again that the terminal building is too close to the runways. Airlines have little room to grow. And the passenger amenities are less than posh.

"Even if you build nothing, the number of passengers coming through the door will still go up," airport Executive Director Tom Greer said. "What will the impacts be if we do nothing? Overcrowding will bring code violations. Our sewers will be overloaded. . . . And we are driven by the fact that the FAA has said we cannot do nothing."

What to do and how to do it, though, remain sticking points. About the only certainty is that someone--some city, some neighborhood, some homeowner--will be left out and angered by whatever happens.

"I would say the whole thing is headed toward litigation," said Burbank City Councilman Bob Kramer, who opposes current plans for expansion. "The battle is going to continue for the next several years and there are no solutions in sight."

Critics such as Kramer fear that the airport's plans for a new 465,000-square-foot terminal--triple the size of the existing building--would mean far more planes making noise in the skies above Burbank and far more passengers clogging city streets. The most vocal opposition to a new terminal comes, understandably, from neighborhoods that surround the airport. These areas already bear the brunt of most of the airport's noise, which has declined steadily since 1978, according to figures reported to federal officials.

Neighbors in the city of Los Angeles have on three occasions sued--and lost--in their efforts to block expansion of the airport, which is bounded on three sides by Los Angeles. They complain that jet noise affects Los Angeles disproportionately because takeoff and landing patterns pass over them more often than Burbank. A current case is on appeal.

In Burbank, the City Council has vowed repeatedly to fight expansion at every turn unless the other two cities that govern the airport--Glendale and Pasadena--address Burbank's concerns. Burbank wants flights restricted during early-morning and overnight hours, a smaller terminal and protections against heavy street traffic. Earlier this month, Burbank threatened its own legal action against the expansion and retained a nationally prominent aviation law firm to protect its interests.

Burbank's objections have sparked tensions on the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, the three-city board that runs the airport. There have even been accusations that the appointed commission negotiated a land purchase for a new terminal behind Burbank's back, which further soured the traditionally strong relationship among the cities.

"This is affecting our relationship in a profound way," said Ted McConkey, a Burbank city councilman elected earlier this year on a tide of anti-airport sentiment. McConkey said the appointed commissioners from the other two cities are acting recklessly in their push to expand the airport. "The cities of Glendale and Pasadena refuse to take any responsibility for their commissioners, and it's having a very chilling impact on our relationship with them," he said.

Added Glendale City Councilwoman Eileen Givens: "We've been working for the past few years to build this Arroyo Verdugo subregion, and expand areas of cooperation, so when something like this comes along and seems to get bitter and nastier, and isn't handled, isn't dealt with, it seems to permeate other relationships. That's one of the reasons I think this needs to be resolved."

But the fighting promises to intensify later this week when the Airport Authority meets to discuss, among other things, the purchase of 140 acres next to the airport from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin as a site for a new terminal. The purchase is perceived by opponents as the first step toward construction.

"It's imminent that the cash deal between Lockheed and the airport will come to fruition very shortly," said Philip E. Berlin, one of Burbank's three appointees to the authority board. "Once that happens, it's all over."

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