New airport-noise committee is smaller, but is it better?

Minneapolis officials say yes, but activists call new group a "facade"

The Metropolitan Airport Commission is set to launch a new Noise Oversight Committee that, depending on who you ask, is either a practical compromise to restart airline-community dialogue or a "facade" for community input.

The MAC voted 12-3 Aug. 19 to create the 12-member Noise Oversight Committee to analyze noise issues, collect and disseminate information to the public and advise MAC. It replaces the defunct 38-member Metropolitan Aircraft Sound Abatement Council (MASAC), which some argued was too large -- and too contentious -- to be effective.

While MASAC included residents from neighborhoods affected by plane noise, it appears the Noise Oversight Committee's public members will be elected officials, not community members.

"I think it is important to the airlines that people come to the table with authority and accountability," said Minneapolis City Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward), a former MASAC member who helped craft the compromise committee.

The Noise Oversight Committee will have six public representatives and six representatives from the airline industry and other airport users. The cities of Minneapolis, Bloomington, Richfield, Eagan and Mendota Heights have permanent seats because they have neighborhoods most affected by plane noise. The sixth seat will rotate among less affected cities.

The Minneapolis City Council's Transportation and Public Works Committee would nominate the city's representative, Lane said. He would suggest either Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) or Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), both of whom represent neighborhoods with jet noise problems.

Old committee "too big"

Several MAC members, such as Dan Boivin, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's recent MAC appointee, made the "something is better than nothing" argument in support of the new noise committee.

"We need to move on this issue," he said. "It is not perfect. The alternative is if we vote it down, we are back to square one. That is a scarier thought."

Members of the airline industry forced the issue in 2000 when they pulled out of MASAC, arguing it had become a community advocacy group. MASAC, created in 1969, was the first such airport noise abatement group in the country.

Bob Johnson, a member of the Minnesota Business Aviation Association, told MAC the noise committee needed to be a smaller group than MASAC so it could discuss policy, "not the legal and emotional harangues we have had in the last few years."

Glenn Strand of Minneapolis, a former MASAC member, said it should be no surprise that MASAC had noise advocates. "People in certain areas feel like they are inundated with pollution," he said. "Of course they are going to advocate for the community."

He called the new noise committee "a facade so they could look like they are getting community input."

The South Metro Airport Action Council, a citizens group formed around airport issues, released a statement saying it lacked confidence in the Noise Oversight Committee, "which lacks direct representation from impacted neighborhoods."

Lane said MASAC needed an overhaul.

"I sat through (MASAC) meetings," he said. "It was just too big and the number of people who showed up -- and the different agendas -- it was difficult to manage. I'm not sure it was productive."

Those who worked on the compromise said the industry made some concessions.

The airlines had initially wanted to allow members to vote by proxy, but city officials argued the importance of having people present at meetings, Lane said. The airlines dropped the proxy request.

Negotiators even discussed whether the noise committee would vote in public or not, he said. The cities insisted on an open forum, and airline representatives agreed.