Residents throughout the Midpeninsula and Santa Cruz area agree that airplanes going to San Francisco International Airport are creating deafening noise overhead, but multiple advocacy groups have very differing views on how to fix the problem.
More than 675 people turned out for the meeting Wednesday night of The Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, which is comprised of county and city officials from the San Francisco Peninsula and tasked with addressing the airplane noise issue and reviewing a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposal to change flight routes, altitude and other local flight procedures.
The Select Committee does not have any power, but it could potentially support the FAA's Northern California Initiative Feasibility Study or provide other recommendations for cutting airplane noise. The problem of increased noise began in 2015 after the FAA rolled out its NextGen program to modernize the nation's air-traffic system.
The FAA proposal came out of recommendations from local airplane-noise groups and incorporates recommendations the agency deems feasible. The study analyzed six categories: airspace design and airspace; adjusting arrival procedures; nighttime departure operations; developing new departure transit points for some nighttime flights; evaluating Oakland and San Francisco departures and improving management of aircraft by flight control.
Packing the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, residents told the committee about hundreds of low-flying planes and the impact the noise has daily and at all hours on their health and mental well-being. While residents from as far away as Santa Cruz and from up and down the Midpeninsula agreed that increased airplane noise has made their lives miserable, they were not united in how the problem should be fixed.
Residents from Santa Cruz and the mountains want a flight path that was moved directly overhead to shift back to where it was prior to the rollout of NextGen. Midpeninsula groups, including Palo Alto, want the flights dispersed over a wider region and at higher elevations.
A Palo Alto noise group, Sky Posse, told the committee that the FAA plan offers "zero" tangible benefits for Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. The group wants alternative flight paths, mainly using the entire length of San Francisco Bay so that planes would fly over water instead of homes.
Quiet Skies Mid-Peninsula, which is comprised largely of cities that include Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Ladera, Redwood City, parts of Woodside and Portola Valley, also favors the dispersal of flight paths. That group noted that half of the flights now are "vectored," meaning they fly in a holding pattern as they wait to land.
The Midpeninsula group also supported Palo Alto's assertion that the FAA plan offers solutions for only some communities and not for all.
"The Bay Area is not only where we live. The Bay Area is a way of life. Noise is a priority. There should be no sacrificial noise corridors," Quiet Skies Mid-Peninsula representative Tammy Mulcahey said.
Sky Posse and Quiet Skies Mid-Peninsula also proposed a permanent technical working group to measure noise on the ground.
But Quiet Skies NorCal, a group with a large Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz mountains contingent, does not favor dispersal at any elevation. They said that FAA must return to the previous flight path over Big Sur, which brings flights in over land farther to the south. They argued that the new path is essentially an easement in the sky over their neighborhoods -- which by law is in essence a taking of property that is impacting well-being, one Santa Cruz resident noted.
The rift between the various groups was apparent in a strongly worded statement by the NorCal group. It blasted Mid-Pen's letter, saying it is "either technically impossible or morally wrong." The Mid-Peninsula group opposes the NorCal group's plan to move the flight path back to Big Sur.
Quiet Skies Woodside said that the narrowing of flight paths and the oceanic arrivals between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. have disrupted their sleep. One-third of all vectored flights on the new flight path over the Santa Cruz mountains fly over Woodside, they said.
Select Committee members said they have several questions they want the FAA to answer before they can make any recommendations. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, the Select Committee chairman, said he wants the FAA to identify some of the problems the agency deemed not feasible and to explore solutions. He and other members supported a Sky Posse and Mid-Peninsula proposal to bring in a group of technical experts who handle SFO flights to guide the committee while it studies the FAA plan and some of the noise groups' alternatives. He and others asked the FAA to consider a permanent committee to address the noise issues over time.
Town of Los Altos Hills Councilman Gary Waldeck asked if a 90-day trial period of any implemented plan might be possible. He and others also want the FAA to come up with ways to measure the noise on the ground.
"The (NextGen) model has never been tested against real data," he said, noting that noise specifications the FAA used for its NextGen model were developed in the 1970s and are now considered obsolete.
"I don't know how FAA has done that with a straight face," he said.
He also favored a long-range approach.
"We're not going to solve all of these problems in a six-question answer," he said. Rather, "it's a lot like build a little, and test a little," he said.
City of Foster City Councilman Sam Hindi said he wants the FAA to clarify what would happen if the Santa Cruz mountains route is moved back over Big Sur.
"Obviously, our community is divided," he said.
(The City of Palo Alto, which now has three flight paths over the city, does not have a representative as one of the 12 principal committee members. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff does sit as an alternate, however.)
So many people wanted to give their opinions at the meeting that the stack of speaker cards was more than two inches thick. Andres Diaz of Mountain View said the FAA report is written from a "big data" perspective that does not account for the individual's experience.
"Ask yourselves whether it seems appropriate that a plan would allow flights at 1,900 feet. That's just one example. Think of the individual as well as the entire community," he said.
Other residents said they no longer get eight hours of sleep a night.
"Now I'm lucky if I can get 2 1/2 hours, and that's every single friggin' day," a Santa Cruz area resident said.
Another complained that the flight changes had been made without residents' input.
"To not be heard ahead of time (before FAA implemented the plan), I feel like it's eminent domain without any compensation," the woman added.
The Select Committee will reconvene to take stock of all of Wednesday night's information. The first of two working meetings will take place July 15 and 22 in the afternoon at Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. The time has yet to be determined. The meetings will be open to the public, but because they are working meetings, the public will not be allowed to speak.