• Watch Weekly journalists discuss this issue with Deputy City Manager Michelle Poché Flaherty on an episode of "Behind the Headlines."
It's been nearly four years since the problem of airplane noise appeared on Palo Alto's radar and -- for residents and city officials -- relief remains well beyond the horizon.
Despite numerous studies, hundreds of citizen complaints and extensive lobbying of the Federal Aviation Administration by Palo Alto and neighboring communities, air traffic remains as high as ever. So are frustrations.
That much was clear on Tuesday night, when several residents urged a City Council committee to take a more aggressive stance toward the FAA, the agency with jurisdiction over the invisible highways in the sky. Traffic in these aerial routes has been on the rise since 2014, when the agency adopted new flight paths and procedures as part of its Next Generation initiative.
Kerry Yarkin was one of several speakers who cited the impact of the added plane noise on her quality of life and encouraged the council's Policy and Services Committee to consider litigation to solve the problem.
"I just think that at this point, after four years, to be able to sit in my backyard, do my gardening, relax, take a walk in my neighborhood ... without my noise-canceling headphones -- you need to do the legal option," Yarkin told the committee Tuesday.
The council committee had its own frustration. In 2016, a special committee chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian had compiled a report with a list of recommendations aimed at providing relief. But after some back and forth, the FAA informed participants last November that some of the report's most ambitious recommendations will not be pursued.
This includes the suggestion that the FAA attempt to reduce the concentration of flights at the MENLO waypoint, which is located near Palo Alto and which functions as a hub for planes waiting to land at San Francisco International Airport. The agency responded that it cannot shift flights around without interfering with the flight space of planes bound for Mineta San Jose International Airport.
For a similar reason, the FAA rejected a suggestion that altitude for planes at MENLO be raised to 5,000 feet. Such an action, the FAA countered in its report cannot be done "without jeopardizing the safe operation of each aircraft."
The FAA's November report noted that the higher the aircraft flies, the farther away from SFO it must travel to descend in the appropriate altitude for approach. The airspace around MENLO does not allow for the extra distance because it is "primarily responsible for aircraft landing and departing the San Jose airport."
Faced with few good options, the Policy and Services Committee agreed on Tuesday to pursue a broad strategy that includes building new alliances, increasing monitoring efforts and -- if necessary -- pursuing litigation.
Committee members and staff recognized that the problem is by no means unique to Palo Alto, though because of the convergence of various flights paths, the city's noise problems are particularly pronounced. Deputy City Manager Michelle Poche Flaherty noted that Palo Alto has had more people filing noise complaints over the past year than any other city -- a reflection of the fact that air traffic has grown significantly in recent years.
According to the most recent report from SFO's Aircraft Noise Abatement Office, Palo Alto had 213 people filing complaints in December 2017. Los Altos and Los Gatos were a distant second and third, with 169 and 147 noise reporters, respectively.
To grapple with the problem, the city has been forging new partnershps. The San Jose City Council has recently formed the Ad Hoc Committee on South Flow Arrivals to consider noise impacts from airplanes at San Jose International Airport. Palo Alto Councilwoman Lydia Kou represents the city on the committee.
Councilman Greg Scharff, meanwhile, is one of seven members on another ad hoc committee -- one that is trying to establish a permanent "Roundtable" group for Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, with a focus on noise issues relating to both San Francisco and San Jose airports. Speaking as a bloc would make it easier for local communities to express their concerns to the FAA, which is generally reluctant to deal with individual jurisdictions, Flaherty said.
Palo Alto officials have also been talking to mayors from nearby cities to communicate consistent messages to the FAA, according to a report from the Office of City Manager.
"The formation of one or more roundtable entities would provide a more effective, comprehensive and transparent means of establishing a regional position on airplane noise," the report states.
The council committee agreed that these memberships are worth pursuing, even as they also acknowledged that the city will need to do a lot more to make real progress. Councilman Tom DuBois noted that the interests of different cities in the region may not align.
"The communities that now have less noise aren't particularly eager to get it back," DuBois said.
DuBois and this three committee colleagues -- Chair Adrian Fine, Cory Wolbach and Karen Holman -- unanimously endorsed a set of recommendations presented by staff for addressing airplane noise. One was to request temporary noise monitoring from San Francisco International Airport. Another called for lobbying the FAA to implement those changes that it deemed feasible -- including making more use of the BDEGA east arrival route, which uses the Bay and largely avoids the city.
The committee also agreed, however, that the city should be prepared to sue, if needed. The council's motion included a provision that the council schedule a closed session to discuss its legal options.
If Palo Alto pursues litigation, it would join the company of cities like Newport Beach and Phoenix, which also recently challenged the FAA over "NextGen." Peter Kirsch, the attorney who worked on the Phoenix lawsuit, has been consulting with Palo Alto on its own response to the FAA, City Attorney Molly Stump told the committee Tuesday. Stump said her office is "watching and waiting," and she suggested that a lawsuit might be premature at this time.
"We do not have an actionable legal situation before us right now," Stump said.
The committee acknowledged the complexity of the problem. Wolbach, who last March was part of a delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss airplane noise with FAA officials, noted that the council has no jurisdiction over the skies and that the best it can do is advocate for its citizens.