Palo Alto officials learned a painful lesson during their trip to Washington, D.C. last month: it's nearly impossible for a city to make its voice heard over airplane noise.
That was the impression that three City Council members came away with after they met with Federal Aviation Administration officials during a trip to the Capitol for the National League of Cities conference. The meeting, they agreed, did not go well.
"It was, I've got to say, the most frustrating interaction with government that I can ever recall having," Councilman Cory Wolbach said as he was updating his colleagues at a March 26 council meeting.
Councilmen Adrian Fine and Greg Scharff, who were also part of the local delegation, concurred. Fine said the FAA was "pretty useless" at the March 13 meeting, which included Brian Langdon, the agency's manager of government and industry affairs, and Lois Yoshida from the FAA Office of the Chief Counsel, as well as several technical experts.
Fine said the agency's legal counsel effectively barred most people from the federal delegation from speaking. Halfway through the meeting, half of the local delegation left out of frustration, he said.
"I've rarely walked away from a meeting feeling so defeated and deflated," Fine recalled during the March 19 council meeting, which focused on ways to address the noise impacts on NextGen, a 2015 federal initiative that realigned flight paths and, in doing so, created noisy highways over various communities, including Palo Alto.
"Everyone in the room felt like the FAA wasn't going to work with Palo Alto," Scharff told the Weekly.
Now, the city is preparing to speak louder and more forcefully. Next week, the council will meet in a closed session to consider litigation against the federal agency -- a tactic that has been employed in other communities wrestling with the issue, including Phoenix and Newport Beach.
At the same time, Scharff is chairing a regional committee that is working to establish a permanent coalition of South Bay cities to focus on airplane noise. Once formed, the South Bay committee will mimic the San Francisco International Airport/Community Roundtable, which includes various San Mateo County cities and San Francisco.
Scharff said every city in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties will be invited to join the new South Bay committee and most -- including Capitola, Santa Cruz and Watsonville -- have already expressed an interest in doing so. His seven-member ad hoc committee consists of local and county representatives, including Mountain View City Councilwoman Pat Showalter, Sunnyvale Councilman Larry Klein and Santa Cruz Supervisor John Leopold. All are excited about moving the effort forward, he said.
The idea of forming the committee was prompted by a letter that U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Ro Khanna and Jimmy Panetta submitted last year to the Cities Association of Santa Clara County urging a permanent venue to represent "currently disenfranchised communities in addressing aircraft noise concerns including, but not limited, to SFO."
The creation of the new group is consistent with recommendations from the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, a group of 12 elected officials that was chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and that met between May and November 2016 to discuss ways for addressing the airplane-noise problem.
To date, the FAA has rejected most of the Select Committee's substantive recommendations, including those that would direct more planes over the Bay and increase flight altitudes over the "MENLO" waypoint, a hub of air traffic. In its response to the Select Committee's recommendation, the FAA argued that the MENLO altitude "cannot be any higher without jeopardizing the safe operation of each aircraft."
"The higher an aircraft flies while in the vicinity of MENLO, the farther away from the SFO airport the aircraft must travel in order to descend to the appropriate altitude for approach," the FAA response stated.
Despite the setbacks, Scharff said he thinks the new committee could be an effective tool for finally getting some results. That, in fact, appears to be one of the few areas in which the FAA and the cities are in agreement.
"One of the things FAA did say is that they'd like us to form a roundtable because it will provide a forum and a voice, rather than having each individual city coming to the FAA and making opposite requests," Scharff said. "If we had a forum where everyone could agree and speak with one voice, we're actually likely to have more power. And the FAA agrees with that."
If the collaboration fails, there's always litigation -- an alternative that many in the community are now urging the council to employ. During a February meeting of the council's Policy and Services Committee, several residents urged the council to join forces with other cities that have been challenging the FAA and pursue the legal option.
Resident Karen Porter pointed to the FAA's rejection of the Select Committee's recommendation and asked the council to keep fighting for the preferred solutions, including higher altitudes at the MENLO waypoint.
"We need to really push back stronger against the FAA," Porter said during the Feb. 13 discussion.
In addition to forming a new regional committee and pondering litigation, Palo Alto officials are also considering other less risky measures to address airplane noise. On Monday, the council will consider a list of recommendations from its Policy and Services Committee, which include requesting temporary noise monitoring from San Francisco International Airport; including aircraft noise in the city's legislative priorities; developing a noise-monitoring plan with the jurisdictions; and lobbying in support of flight paths that would divert air traffic away from neighborhoods.