With the topic of airplane noise recently soaring toward the top of Palo Alto's priority list, the City Council moved ahead this week with a new study that officials and citizens hope will arm the city with the necessary data to effect change.
The City Council approved on Monday night a $237,500 contract with the firm Freytag & Associates Inc. to review a recent proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for alternative air traffic routes -- a proposal that was prompted by a growing chorus of complaints from Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and other areas that have seen a radical increase in air traffic as a result of the Next Generation Air Transportation System. Known as NextGen, the recently implemented initiative required aircraft to travel along a narrow lanes and resulted in a surge of complaints from communities lying along these routes.
The troubling trend has given rise to the new grassroots group, Sky Posse, which has been lobbying local and federal officials to demand relief from the air noise.
In November, the group scored a minor victory when the FAA agreed to re-evaluate plane routes and consider other mitigation strategies for reducing the noise. One of Freytag's first tasks will be to assist city staff in responding to the FAA with comments about the initiative.
The consulting firm will also conduct an analysis to quantify Palo Alto's increase in air traffic and undertake studies relating to sleep interference, classroom disruption and property valuation.
The new Palo Alto study will be one of several recent analyses commissioned by cities concerned about the noise above them. Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills recently hired the firm Williams Aviation Consultants to respond to the FAA's initiative on their behalf. In recent weeks, Palo Alto has been coordinating its efforts with those two cities, as well as East Palo Alto, Los Altos, Menlo Park and Mountain View.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, who serves on the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, has also become increasingly involved in the topic. In the past two months, she has been urging local cities to respond to the FAA initiative and to unite behind a "regional solution." In a Jan. 25 letter co-signed by Eshoo and Rep. Sam Farr, the two legislators asked the various airplane-noise groups to form a coalition that would span their respective districts.
"If the final recommendations from the majority of your organizations are clear and do not contradict each other, we can be firm and clear with the FAA about next steps and implementing change sooner," Eshoo and Farr wrote. "We welcome one letter signed by each of your organizations stating for the record what you think the FAA can do to implement change."
Since then, representatives from Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills have held a conference call to discuss the issue and receive a status update from Eshoo's office, according to a new report from the office of City Manager James Keene. City staff also met with Sky Posse representatives in Jan. 28 to discuss legal and legislative matters.
Residents, for their part, have continued to demand more action. On Jan. 26, more than 50 residents attended the City Council meeting with signs urging the city to make airplane noise a top priority. Carrying signs that said, "TOO LOW, TOO MANY, HELP!!" and "Make Aviation Impacts a City Priority 2016," the residents asked the council to get the needed data, consult with aviation experts and forge the needed partnerships to mount an effective response to the FAA.
Rachel Kellerman, speaking on behalf of the group, blamed the FAA for concentrating "damaging airplane superhighways over Palo Alto."
"You have seen and heard the planes over our homes, our parks, our places of worship and our places of work," Kellerman said. "You are hearing our community. We are losing sleep. We are having an unprecedented disruption to our quality of life.
"Because of the rise in complaints from the citizens, the FAA is doing something it's never done before, which is to issue an action plan to address our concerns. This is a golden opportunity happening right now that our city cannot afford to miss," Kellerman said.