Despite rising community frustrations about airplane noise, the Palo Alto City Council decided Monday night not to launch a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration at this time.
Rejecting calls for litigation from the dozens of residents who came to City Hall with signs, statistics and anecdotes, the City Council concluded after a lengthy closed session that suing the federal agency would probably not achieve everyone's shared goal: turning down the volume. The council reached its decision after hearing from a dozen residents and conferring with consulting attorneys for more than two hours.
Of those who addressed the council or submitted letters, nearly everyone spoke in favor of suing the agency, whose recent changes to flight paths have concentrated airplane routes over city, creating what many refer to as aerial "super highways." The problem began in 2014, when the FAA launched its NextGen program that instantly increased the volume of flights over many homes. Many feel the problem will only get worse as the agency moves ahead with START PIRAT TWO, its new procedures for planes flying from the west over the Pacific Ocean, toward a waypoint near Woodside.
The city had already submitted numerous letters to the FAA explaining its position that the procedures may further worsen the problem of airplane noise. After not receiving any responses from the federal agency, the council agreed last month to meet in a closed session to consider its legal options.
Since then, residents have continued to press the council to take legal action.
"Nearly five years have passed since the FAA designated sections of Palo Alto as a trash heap for airplane noise pollution and so far, PACC (Palo Alto City Council) attempts to work with FAA have been ineffective," High Street resident Jan St. Peter wrote in an email to the council. "It's time city representatives support tougher measures to restore Palo Alto to pre-NextGen noise levels."
"We have tried the 'polite' approach for 4-5 years and little has changed," wrote Micheline Horstmeyer. "I am afraid that the FAA will continue to ignore our concerns about jet noise until we TAKE LEGAL ACTION."
Many offered similar sentiments in person. Lois Shore, who works at JLS Middle School, told the council Monday that the problem has gotten noticeably worse at the school.
"We have loud planes going over constantly. When our KJLS broadcasts are recorded, you can just hear, 'Boom!' You don't know what the students say," Shore said.
Mark Shull said the city has tried other options, including committees, roundtables and letters but nothing has worked. He too encouraged the council to move ahead with litigation.
"Palo Alto has become a designated dumping ground and the reason of it is that we did not step up and demand meaningful representation. ... The city needs to break that cycle and a lawsuit is a great place to start," Shull said.
The council, which has been struggling to get the FAA's attention, shared the residents' frustrations, though not its preferred remedy. Mayor Eric Filseth said after the closed session that after talking things over with the attorneys, the council decided not to sue.
"Given the chance of success and what we realistically actually get if we won, and in the context of regional efforts, in the end we felt the best chance of getting relief for Palo Alto is to focus on the regional process without litigation at this time," Filseth said. "We realize this is intensely frustrating for the community. We are very frustrated ourselves.
"In the end, the council determined that this is the best of a palette of poor options," Filseth said.
This was the second time that the council had considered and ultimately rejected requests from residents to sue the FAA. In April 2018, the council similarly met in a closed session to consider a possible suit and ultimately opted not to move ahead with litigation.