An effort by cities in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties to form an alliance to address the irksome issue of airplane noise is finally preparing to lift off the ground.
The city of Palo Alto is one of 21 agencies that are considering a resolution to join what is known as the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz Community Roundtable. Modeled after the San Francisco Airport/Community Roundtable, which includes representatives from San Francisco and San Mateo counties, the new group aims to amplify the voices of its member cities and make it easier for them to negotiate with the Federal Aviation Administration on airplane noise.
The resolution, which the Palo Alto council is scheduled to adopt this Monday, notes that the idea of creating of a permanent South Bay association to address airplane noise was recommended by both the congressional delegation and by the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, a group of elected officials that met between May and November 2016 to consider measures for dealing with the problem.
"Each jurisdiction is just one of over 100 municipalities in the Bay Area. The ability of any single community, whether 30,000 or 60,000, to influence the complex operations of a federal agency serving a region of 8 million people is limited," the resolution states. "The impacts of airplane noise must be considered amid the competing interests of the flying public, airline industry priorities, airport operational requirements, broader economic and environmental impacts and, above all else, safety.
"The successful navigation of these public interest challenges requires effective collaboration."
By forming the new group, the cities in the two counties are responding to a request from U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Jimmy Panetta and Ro Khanna, who last year made their case in a public letter for a "permanent venue to address aircraft noise concerns and we think it is essential that this body include all currently unrepresented cities in our Congressional Districts." The June 2017 letter called the new group "a fundamental prerequisite to ensuring that there is a platform to develop regional consensus upon and thereby ensure any current and future aircraft noise concerns of our mutual constituents can be adequately addressed."
"We understand that the developing solutions to aircraft noise issues is a complicated and sensitive endeavor that requires extensive engagement with constituents living in affected communities facing sometimes disparate but ultimately interrelated issues," the letter from the three Congress members stated. "Because of this, any proposed changes to our complex airspace should not be the burden of one single city and can only be achieved fairly and effectively with a foundation of regional consensus."
In Palo Alto, City Council members have recently experienced first-hand the futility of trying to fly solo in negotiations with the FAA. In March, a delegation of council members flew to Washington, D.C., to discuss the topic of airplane noise with federal officials. According to the participants, the FAA indicated that it has no interest in addressing the city's concern. Councilman Cory Wolbach called the meeting "the most frustrating interaction with government that I can ever recall," while Councilman Adrian Fine said the agency was "pretty useless" at the meeting and described his feeling afterwards as "defeated and deflated."
In April, the council briefly considered suing the FAA but ultimately opted not to. After its closed session on the topic, Mayor Liz Kniss reassured the public that the council remains "extremely concerned" about airplane noise and stressed the need to cooperate with neighboring cities.
"Palo Alto needs to work together with other jurisdictions to address this issue on a regional basis," she said.
Now, Palo Alto and other cities hope their collaboration can achieve what individual appeals could not. For the past year, the Cities Association of Santa Clara County led an ad hoc committee of elected council members to lay the ground rules for the new roundtable. In June, Andi Jordan, executive director of the Cities Association, sent a letter to all the cities formal requests to join the new collaborative. Each was asked to review the memorandum of understanding for the new group and respond by Sept. 28.
The founding member cities of the roundtable are San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Capitola, Scotts Valley, as well as the Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties. Each will be asked to contribute financially toward the new association, with each contribution based on population.
Under the fee structure adopted by the ad hoc committee, the contribution from each city will be 50 cents per resident (in Palo Alto, this amounts to an annual contribution of about $33,466, the Cities Association estimated). The only exception is San Jose, which is magnitudes larger than any other city and which will have to contribute 10 cents for each of its roughly 1 million residents. Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties will each be assessed 50 cents per resident for their unincorporated areas.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who as former president of the Cities Association helped jump-start the new Roundtable, said he hopes the group will create a new path forward for cities in negotiating with the FAA, one in which they actually have a good chance of getting something accomplished. Under the present setup, if Palo Alto speaks and Mountain View and Sunnyvale say something different, FAA will use that as a reason not to do anything, Scharff told the Weekly.
In addition to improving the cities' position, the new group should provide a forum for residents from the two counties to give their concerns. And for participating members, it will be a way to accumulate expertise on a complex topic.
"The hope is that whoever serves will serve for a period of time and will become an expert and understand the issues, which are very technical," Scharff told the Weekly.
The new roundtable group isn't Palo Alto's only venue for regional collaboration on airplane noise. The city also had a representative on the city of San Jose's Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on South Flow Arrivals, which in May released its final report. Councilwoman Lydia Kou served on that committee, which considered the increasing concentration of flights in the wake of NextGen, an FAA program that switched from a radar- to a GPS-based approach. Because this change created concentrated flight paths (what some have characterized as highways in the sky), it coincided with a dramatic spike in airplane-noise complaints from homes under the new flight paths.
The report from the San Jose group recommends that the FAA consider options that allow for safe landings at Mineta San Jose International Airport while returning to a "more dispersed distribution of aircraft." It specifically asks that the FAA not route airplanes over "narrow rails" and that it revert to "ground noise patterns prior to 2012 in the same geographic proportions as before."