Palo Alto and other government officials have so far been fighting an uphill battle to decrease airplane noise over their cities. For nearly 20 years, Palo Alto officials have been trying to join the San Francisco International Airport Community Roundtable, a group that represents 19 cities within San Mateo County; San Francisco and San Mateo counties; the San Francisco Airport Commission; and The Association of Governments of San Mateo County Airport Land Use Committee.
Palo Alto officials pushed to join the roundtable and become voting members in 1997 but were rejected. Mayor Nancy Shepherd attended the roundtable's June 4, 2014, meeting and again requested the city be allowed to join. The city was again rejected. A July 22 subcommittee meeting that included the Airport Land Use Committee, cities of Pacifica, Redwood City, Portola Valley, SFO Airport Director John Martin and the San Francisco Mayor's Office recommended the roundtable not take a vote on including Palo Alto. Doing so would mean that each city would have to take the issue to their voters and then vote as a group to change their bylaws to allow Palo Alto, a cumbersome process.
Instead, they recommended the city continue to attend the roundtable meetings to voice its concerns and participate on a regional level through the Association of Bay Area Government's Regional Airport Planning Committee. But that committee has been largely ineffective, the subcommittee noted, having canceled its last meetings in April and July. It has not met since October 2013, and the last year it met regularly was in 2011.
The subcommittee also recommended helping Palo Alto and Santa Clara County create their own roundtable organization to focus on aircraft noise "from general aviation or commercial activity in the county or from the region's other airports."
"They are the only county with a major commercial service airport in the Bay Area that does not have an airport-focused noise organization with elected officials and appointed staff," the subcommittee noted, referencing Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.
Shepherd was philosophical about the snubbing.
"I threw them the whole kitchen sink," she said, noting that Palo Alto has fought battles for other cities because it has a full legal staff and should receive support on the airplane issue.
But she noted the SFO Roundtable might not be the best avenue for redress anyway. A June 2011 San Mateo County grand jury report found the roundtable's effectiveness in representing residents impacted by aircraft noise and vibration was largely ineffective and was diminishing.
"County officials need to make noise about aircraft noise," the grand jury titled its report.
The grand jury found that the roundtable's bylaws do not require the chair or vice chair be an elected representative of a member city, nor does it allow for any membership or committee representation by individual members of the community.
The grand jury also recommended that severely impacted cities form citizen advisory groups to work with their appointed representative on the roundtable to identify and reduce aircraft noise. And "neither County of San Mateo nor the San Francisco Airport Commission exercise their authority to issue fines and sanctions for noise violations despite frequent and repetitive failures to comply with standards," the grand jury noted.
Shepherd said she is now looking for a more strategic approach, "rather than demanding to be part of the noise roundtable and get no advocacy from them."
She will ask for the City Council's Policy and Services Committee to look into how to best define the problem and which agencies to approach.
"All of this is good timing, since we're going to have to come up with a new mechanism with our own airport," she said, now that the city has taken over ownership of the Palo Alto Municipal Airport.
Airport Manager Andrew Swanson said the city is only in the beginning stages of figuring out what the future Palo Alto Airport will look like -- whether to bring in outside management, for example. Flights are up this year, hovering around 180,000, he said.
Palo Alto Airport uses noise-abatement procedures developed by Santa Clara County, with most takeoffs making a turn out over the San Francisco Bay. When there is a fog bank, flights are routed around the municipal golf course and U.S. Highway 101, which does create more noise over Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, he said.
Swanson, who worked with SFO on noise and air-traffic trends, said that with the good economy, residents can expect air-traffic increases.
"It seems to correlate with the economy. There's definitely a direct relationship," he said.
Airplane noise has become an issue throughout the country, particularly as the FAA's NextGen satellite-control upgrades have rolled out, which many residents say has exacerbated the problem.
On Oct. 3, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo announced her membership in the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus. The caucus will raise awareness of the issue and will work to find meaningful solutions to the problem, a spokesperson said. The caucus consists of members of Congress from across the country whose constituents are adversely affected by incidents of airplane and helicopter noise.
In September, Eshoo and 25 members of Congress indicated their disappointment with the FAA's handling of aircraft noise and failure to update a decades-old noise limit.
"Airports are epicenters of economic growth, but the noise from aircraft can make them pesky neighbors for many residents who live near them, including many of my constituents. The creation of the Quiet Skies Caucus provides a forum to advance solutions that abate aircraft noise in our communities," she said in a statement.