Palo Alto is poised to join an exclusive club that for more than 20 years has been declining to have the city as a member but that local officials believe may help them address the irksome issue of airplane noise.
The city is on its way to becoming the first Santa Clara County city to join the SFO Community Roundtable, a coalition that since its establishment in 1981 only offered membership to elected leaders from San Francisco and San Mateo County cities and key transportation officials affiliated with the San Francisco International Airport. Palo Alto's expected entry into the club would follow at least six prior requests by the city to join the Roundtable — overtures that go back to 1997 but that have become louder since the Federal Aviation Administration began instituting its NextGen Initiative in 2014. The federal program established three arrival routes over Palo Alto, leading to a sharp spike in air traffic and noise complaints.
To date, every attempt from Palo Alto to join the Roundtable had faltered in the face of political headwinds. Sitting members had argued that the group was created primarily for jurisdictions closest to the airport and that expanding membership would dilute their voices. That changed on Wednesday night, when the majority of the group agreed that Palo Alto should be allowed to join. To that end, the Roundtable voted to establish a subcommittee that will come up with criteria for admitting new members. The committee will also consider funding mechanisms for supporting the expanded Roundtable going forward.
While the motion didn't specifically name Palo Alto, members made it clear during the discussion that it was the city's repeated requests and persistent engagement in Roundtable operations that are driving the conversation. The majority of the members agreed that with NextGen in effect, Palo Alto deserves to have a voice in the discussion of airplane noise impacts.
Palo Alto received a particularly strong boost from Roundtable members representing cities in southern San Mateo County, including Portola Valley, Atherton and Woodside. SFO Airport Director Ivar Satero also supported allowing Palo Alto to become a member. The huge impact that NextGen has had on the city is "clear as day," he said.
"I never thought of communities as having boundaries," Satero said. "I thought of them as those communities that are impacted by SFO operations."
Roundtable Chair Ricardo Ortiz, who serves as vice mayor in Burlingame, had voted several times against allowing Palo Alto to join. On Wednesday, he changed his position and said he was "cautiously in favor" of admitting the city into the group. Ortiz said he was impressed by the city's participation in Roundtable meetings over the past four years and suggested that because the group's existing members share many of Palo Alto's concerns, its entry into the club will not significantly impact the group's operations or raise costs.
Jeff Aalfs, a Portola Valley town council member who represents the town on the Roundtable, said he favors admitting Palo Alto immediately, though he went along with the more cautious and methodical approach favored by Ortiz and most of his other colleagues: establish admission criteria, revise the memorandum of understanding that governs the organization and then let Palo Alto into the group.
"If you ignore political boundaries, there's no question in my mind that Palo Alto is a stakeholder in the operation of the San Francisco Airport," Aalfs said.
Atherton City Council member Bill Widmer also said he is in favor of admitting Palo Alto. He cited the city's participation in discussions pertaining to airport operations and lauded the efforts of residents who have been regularly attending Roundtable meetings to weigh in on the issue of airplane noise.
"I find them to be extremely well-educated and thoughtful in their comments. I feel they come prepared," Widmer said. "I think they would be extremely additive to what we're doing."
The response from representatives closest to the airport was far more mixed, with some welcoming Palo Alto and others vociferously opposing the city's admission. The most vocal opponent was Millbrae Mayor Ann Schneider, who suggested that the Roundtable already spends too much time listening to Palo Alto's problems at the expense of cities like her own, which wants to see more attention paid to ground-based noise. She said she has "just watched years of (her) life being eaten up by the people of Palo Alto."
"In the last six months of the year, they have taken the bulk of our time," Schneider said of Palo Alto residents. "What is to say that once they are a member, that isn't all we deal with?"
Terry O'Connell, a Brisbane City Council member, also said that with Palo Alto aboard, the Roundtable may spend too much time on airplane arrivals and not enough on departures, an issue of concern to her community.
"I appreciate all the help and the technical information that people from Palo Alto bring to our Roundtable," O'Connell said. "I also see that they have a lot of political clout and they have a lot of really impressive, well-versed people. But I do think that we get bogged down in arrivals to a tremendous amount, even if it's not on our agenda."
The Roundtable's change in direction spells a victory for the Palo Alto City Council, which has struggled to address the issue of airplane noise, and the citizens group Sky Posse, which has been at the forefront of the city's effort to combat NextGen's impacts. Several Palo Alto residents attended the Wednesday meeting to urge the Roundtable to grant Palo Alto membership. Marie-Jo Fremont, a longtime proponent of addressing airplane noise, suggested that the Roundtable's criteria are "outdated."
"They were established pre-NextGen and do not reflect the reality of impacts," Fremont said.
Resident Subodh Iyengar said letting Palo Alto into the group would be a "fair thing to do."
"I believe Palo Alto residents share a lot of the same issues as other cities in the Roundtable. … I think Palo Alto can be a great addition to the Roundtable," Iyengar said.