Despite a widespread belief that its complaints about airplane noise are falling on deaf ears at the Federal Aviation Administration, Palo Alto officials decided after a closed session Monday not to launch a lawsuit against the federal agency.
The City Council considered litigation after years of frustrating discussions with the FAA about possible ways to reduce airplane noise, which has been on the rise since the agency implemented its NextGen program in 2014. The program consolidated flight paths over Palo Alto, creating what some residents have described as airplane "highways" over their homes. Recent suggestions to address the rising noise issues by increasing flight elevation, reducing the concentration of flights over what's known as the MENLO waypoint and sending more planes over the Bay were rejected by the agency, prompting calls from residents to seek legal action.
More than 20 residents made their case before the council's closed session, with some pointing to the success that the city of Phoenix has had in suing the FAA and getting the agency to shift its plans. One resident, Richard Staehinke, listed 20 different flights that recently flew over his house between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.
"You hear the planes coming from miles away," Staehinke said. "They slowly drone their way in, roar over your head and slowly fade away.
"Before you hear the last one end, the next one is already going. It is nonstop."
Many others concurred and told the council that the extreme escalation in airplane noise disturbs their sleep, interferes with their children's school performance and degrades their quality of life. Joe Hayflick said the FAA is treating the city like a "public noise sewer" and an "artificial noise corridor." He asked the city to join with other jurisdictions and pursue litigation.
"This is the big leagues, and we need big league experts teaming up with big league attorneys," Hayflick said.
The council agreed that the city needs to explore more regional cooperation -- something it is already doing through the creation of a new South Bay roundtable group modeled after the San Francisco International Airport/Community Roundtable (an ad hoc committee led by Councilman Greg Scharff is in the process of forming the new South Bay group). But after spending more than an hour conferring with attorneys and discussing a possible suit, the Palo Alto council opted not to pursue the litigation route.
"We are not in the same position as other jurisdictions that have recently received positive legal rulings," Mayor Liz Kniss said after the closed session in explaining the council's decision.
The case in Phoenix, she said, was an anomaly because the FAA had made "many errors" in failing to conduct an adequate environmental review. In California, the facts are "very different," she said.
"We have not identified any legal flaws that are anywhere as significant as anything that happened in Phoenix," Kniss said.
Kniss stressed after the discussion that the council is "extremely concerned about this problem" and focused on ways to improve the situation.
"Palo Alto needs to work together with other jurisdictions to address this issue on a regional basis," she said.
The council plans to discuss the topic of airplane noise, as well as other steps to address the problem, in an open session in the next few weeks. Some options that the city is considering include requesting temporary noise monitoring from the San Francisco International Airport, supporting regional roundtables relating to aircraft impacts and continuing to engage policymakers and advocacy groups over the topic.