Airports commission slashes noise-mitigation plan

No free sound insulation for dozens of Southwest homes; Mayor Rybak plans lawsuit

As jets scream upon takeoff, homeowners near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport may look at the skies in frustration. Their prayers for some relief might be doused by a new proposal to drastically cut a noise-mitigation program.

On July 19, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) approved a proposal to cut noise mitigation in the 60-64 DNL (day-night level) sound contour and make homeowners pay part of the cost.

The $35.5 million proposal cut by almost three-quarters a $130 million plan approved a few weeks earlier by the MAC’s Noise Oversight Committee.

Under the committee plan, people living with 63 or 64 DNL would have received the full insulation package, including new windows, doors and central air conditioning. Those living with 60-62 DNL would have received free central air.

The proposal MAC approved only gives central air conditioning to those in the 60-64 DNL contour, and requires that homeowners pay the following shares of the cost:

– 60 DNL, 50 percent

– 61 DNL, 40 percent

– 62 DNL, 30 percent

– 63 DNL, 20 percent

– 64 DNL, 10 percent (there are no 64 DNL homes currently in Southwest.)

The proposal passed 12-3, after the MAC amended an earlier proposal from Chair Victoria Tigwell that all 60-64 DNL homeowners pay 50 percent of the cost.

The proposal affects hundreds of Southwest residents (see map). A handful of Tangletown residents north of Diamond Lake Road and roughly east of Grand Avenue near Minnehaha Creek lost the full mitigation package; a larger group in an irregular area between 45th and 62 streets west of Fremont Avenue lost free central air.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — elected in part on his citizen activism against airport noise — told the Tangletown Neighborhood Association July 19, "We are going to sue."

He said the city will either sue the Federal Aviation Administration or will help put together a group of citizens to file a class-action lawsuit against the agency.

"We are going to fight this every step of the way," Rybak said. "I can’t guarantee that we’re going to win, but the MAC needs to know that they can’t push people around."

Rybak claims the commission broke a 1996 promise to homeowners in the 60-64 DNL zone: the full mitigation package, in return for not moving the airport to a more remote metro-area location.

Said Rybak, "[The 1996 agreement] was a legally binding commitment, and we intend to prove that in a court of law."

Tigwell is unbowed. "I understand he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do," she said. "This is a compromise. We could get legal action from any number of people depending on which action we took. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding it."

Tigwell said she forged her "compromise" after she realized that there was an irrevocable split between commissioners who favored full mitigation for 60-64 DNL homes and those favoring no mitigation at all.

The full commission vote was significant, but the MAC could still amend the proposal. An open house and public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Sept. 9 and MAC commissioners plan a final Oct. 18 vote that could incorporate information from the September meeting.

Learning to share

The city and MAC view the 1996 agreement differently.

From the city’s point of view, the MAC agreed to fully insulate homes — including new noise-dampening windows and doors, insulation and central air conditioning — up to a $150 million spending cap. Homeowners weren’t required to share costs under that deal.

MAC’s view, expressed in the July 19 vote, is that there is no obligation to fully mitigate or spend the full $150 million.

Tigwell argues that her plan goes further than federal standards, which only call for mitigation for homes experiencing 65 DNL or more. She added that it’s reasonable to ask residents to pay part of the cost of new air conditioning.

"We’re imparting real value to these peoples’ homes," she said. "They’re below the federal standard. They keep 100 percent of the economic benefit. Shouldn’t they share in this improvement cost much like the city of Minneapolis asks people to share in costs of improvements they do in their neighborhood

Helping Northwest?

By reducing homeowners’ payout, the MAC has more money to spend on the airport.

The noise mitigation program is funded in part by a $4.50 Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) on flights originating in the Twin Cities.

MAC Commissioners Bert McKasy of Inver Grove Heights and St. Paul’s Dick Long evoked the threat of terrorism to partly explain their votes in favor of the plan. They think that at least some of the $115 million "saved" beneath the $150-million mitigation cap could be spent on improving the airport’s security systems.

Long said he thinks the new $35 million plan is all that the MAC can afford. "Money has gotten real tight since 9/11," he said.

City officials say 9/11 rhetoric masks a more bottom-line power play.

Merland Otto, the city’s principal planner specializing in airport noise, contends that Northwest Airlines — by far the airport’s biggest and most influential occupant — has other plans for those unspent funds.

"Northwest is contending that those same dollars could be put to better use. ‘Better use’ means projects that would more directly benefit them as a business," he said. "Extending the concourse, expanding gates…they’re floating that that where they would take over the Lindbergh terminal and move everyone that isn’t one of their partners into the [charter] terminal.

"In order to make that happen, they’d have to expand the [charter] terminal. They’d rather see that money go there instead of noise mitigation. Well, great, who wouldn’t like free money?"

Politically (if not legally), the question may be who deserves "free money" more — property owners under the flight path or an airline that is one of the state’s biggest employers.

In a one-line e-mail response to a request for comment, Northwest spokesperson Mary Stanik wrote that MAC’s new plan "provides a basis for going forward and we agree that the process needs to move forward."

Beneficiaries’ reaction

David Berg’s Tangletown house is directly under the flight path for the south parallel runway, and he said installing full noise-mitigation should proceed out to 60 DNL.

"We still have noisy planes at the airport, and we still have noisy planes going over our house," he said. "The deal was that they would drop the dual-track process and they would insulate homes out to the 60 DNL."

He said conversations stop outdoors every time a plane flies overhead, including the new, quieter ones Northwest has added to its fleet, and that indoors "my windows rattle, along with everything else."

He said if the MAC offers a co-pay on AC, he’ll consider the offer, but not without feeling "at least a little bit cheated."

Robert Plant has lived at East 46th Street and 1st Avenue since 1987 and has long followed noise-related controversies.

He said he doesn’t really expect to ever receive any noise-mitigation enhancements — and he’s not sure if he should.

"Boy, that sure would be a great benefit, but it seems like it really is a burden on all the taxpayers," he said.

Plant works at the airport for an air-freight carrier.

"I know how airline industries get heavily taxed. I’m not a Northwest employee, but I know the burden is on them."

He said he and his wife decided 18 months ago to go ahead with a noise-mitigation program of their own: they installed double-hung, gas-vapor windows on their home’s second story.

He added that if the MAC does ever offer him half-off central air, he’ll say yes.

McKasy, Tigwell and other plan supporters are counting on the support of residents such as Plant.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty probably is as well.

The two commissioners said they’d spoken to Pawlenty about Tigwell’s plan and said he supports it.

"The governor is sort of a new and different thinker and a change agent," McKasy said. "What is being proposed here is new in terms of the co-pay."

Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-63A), a Lynnhurst resident, said that co-pay is one of the worst parts of the MAC’s new plan.

"The MAC has never taken the position that the homeowner is going to be a participant in terms of investing their own money to do noise mitigation that’s caused by the airport."

He said that though his home southeast of Lake Harriet doesn’t fall within the affected contours, he’s not sure he would take the MAC up on its offer of AC.

Noting that central air can cost upwards of $10,000, he said, "I don’t know if I could afford that."