Working both sides of the runway

When the cities of Minneapolis, Eagan and Richfield go to court against the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), they'll be relying on the legal expertise of their respective city attorneys, as well as the Denver law firm of Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell.

The Denver lawyers have represented airports and surrounding residents in various noise disputes.

This time around, lead counsel Stephen Kaplan will help the trio of cities convince a court that the MAC broke legally binding 1996 promises to fully insulate homes in an area that includes Southwest.

Earning wings

Kaplan is steeped in complex aviation law. The former Denver city attorney served as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1993 to 1995.

Said Kaplan, "I was city attorney in Denver when we decided to close our old airport - which was in the city so to speak - and build a new airport" 20 miles from Denver's city limits.

"And it was a process that was as difficult as the one you all went through," Kaplan said. "It just got to a different place."

Colorado's move helped prevent many noise issues Minneapolis residents still wrestle with nearly a decade after state leaders let Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport expand in its existing location.

Observed Kaplan, "The problem with Minneapolis is just geography. There's just a stark reality of where the airport is and where homes are; and older homes, not newer homes that just were built in the past three to five years."

Kaplan said it's clear that the MAC (Metropolitan Airports Commission) made a deal in 1996 to insulate homes in return for expansion.

He noted, "What I think is particularly unusual about Minneapolis is that you've got a whole history here of commitments that have been in place for almost a decade that are very specific and precise, and the airport is not honoring them. Usually, it's people trying to get the airport to make the commitment."

Kaplan said his firm's lawyers have worked on airport noise disputes and growth issues for clients such as Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Los Angeles's LAX, and in Cleveland, West Palm Beach, Fla. and Burbank, Calif. He said the difference with Minneapolis is that those cities had no agreements outlining noise mitigation plans.

"You have a very specific plan that's quantifiable, where you know whether it's been implemented or not," Kaplan said. "It doesn't require a lot of exotic technical computations. That's unusual in a way, and now MAC is saying 'we're not going to do it.' It's particularly problematic or difficult when there is such a concrete and specific plan that everyone has agreed to."

Seeing the light

Kaplan believes that the Minneapolis-Eagan-Richfield suit is unique because after the various players negotiate noise-mitigation and growth disputes, they typically live up to their commitments, while the MAC has not.

In situations such as those faced in Cincinnati, Seattle/Tacoma or Los Angeles, "the airports generally see the light before litigation is filed" by surrounding communities, Kaplan said.

He said he refused to predict that Minneapolis and its co-litigants will prevail in their legal battle but insisted that the dispute could easily be solved - if the MAC would simply do what Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and others want.

Not surprisingly, MAC Executive Director Jeff Hamiel has no intention of doing that, nor is he willing to comment on the lawsuit.

Hamiel said the airports commission would fulfill its promise to nearby residents with its current offer to help buy central air conditioning on a sliding fee scale for homeowners in the 60-64 DNL (day-night level) sound contour.