With citizen complaints about airplane noise on the rise, Palo Alto officials on Monday unanimously agreed to commission a study focused on recent changes in air traffic.
The study will consider both the changes in flight patterns that have occurred over Palo Alto in the last few years and the "dramatic increase in concentrated, low-altitude flights and associated noise levels," according to a report from the office of City Manager James Keene. The effort was prompted by a chorus of complaints from residents throughout Palo Alto about the noticeable increase in low-flying planes at all hours of the day and night.
Several residents made the case on Monday, including Bonnie Bernstein, who said she's been living in Palo Alto for 29 years and that she now finds herself "right under the line of airplanes," making it impossible to have any sense of relaxation.
"We're just bombarded by being under the landing path that really has a tremendous impact," she said.
So far, the City Council has reached out to the city's federal representatives and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has jurisdiction over flight patterns. The council also on Monday passed a resolution calling for the FAA to "immediately mitigate the increased airplane noise at ground level," an increase that the city attributes to the FAA's ongoing transition to the new NextGen flight system, which requires aircraft to travel within a narrower corridor to free up airspace for commercial and military drones.
The federal agency's new approach aims to standardize arrival and departure routes in 21 identified metroplexes, according to the city's resolution.
The new routes, however, are having a disproportionate and disruptive impact on Palo Alto and areas around it, city officials maintain. According to the resolution passed Monday, it is "primarily impacting Santa Clara County residents of Los Gatos, Palo Alto and the Summit/Skyline area, and to a lesser degree the residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View and Saratoga."
"The considerable increase in the number of flights overhead each day and the lower flight altitudes result in a significant increase in the amount of aircraft noise experienced on the ground," the adopted resolution states. "As evidenced by the increasing number of complaints received by the City of Palo Alto City Council and staff, the new routes have created noise impacts that appear to be far more adverse than those of the former routes for our residents."
For evidence, Palo Alto officials pointed to the number of noise complaints submitted to the SFO Noise Abatement Office by local residents. The number of complaints had gone up from 60 in June 2014 to 2,733 in June 2015, according to the city. Local residents have also formed a new citizens group, Sky Posse, which now advocates for quieter skies.
With its vote on Monday, the council approved a request of proposals for the airplane study. After soliciting proposals, staff plans to return to the council in December, at which point the contract for the study would be approved.
City officials have also requested help from their elected representatives at the county and federal levels. In April, U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Sam Farr wrote a letter to the FAA requesting that the agency hold more public forums to give residents a chance to express their concerns about the new flight patterns.
"When the FAA began implementing the NextGen program last month, the dramatic increase in airplane noise over previously peaceful neighborhoods in our respective districts came as a complete surprise to residents," the two representatives wrote. "This change has dramatically affected the quality of life in several quiet rural areas that had previously experienced little or no aircraft noise impacts."
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors also joined the conversation this week, passing a resolution that calls for the FAA to consider, as an immediate solution, raising altitudes on the new flight paths. The resolution, which was proposed by supervisors Joe Simitian and Dave Cortese, also asks the federal agency to consider, as part of a longer-term solution, to redesign the flight paths within the Northern California metroplex in a way that does not result in simply moving the noise from one community to another.
The supervisors also requested that Congress implement "statutory changes to the FAA that require more robust community engagement before flight paths are changed, more accurate measures of noise experienced on the ground, and independent research on the health impacts of aviation noise," the resolution reads.
Simitian said in a statement that while the problem of airplane noise "stretches over at least three counties, it certainly seems severe in our area." Last weekend, Simitian said, he heard from folks in Saratoga, Mountain View and Menlo Park, all in a 24-hour period. He also pointed at the rapid rise of noise complaints from Palo Alto. The number has gone from 587 in all of 2014 to more than 5,000 by June 2015, according to the SFO Noise Abatement Office.
"If it does nothing else, my hope is that this resolution strengthens the hand of our Congressional representatives in dealing with the FAA," Simitian said.