Sounding off on airport noise

City leaders mobilizing residents to push the Metropolitan Airports Commission for more noise mitigation measures

CITY HALL - City leaders are preparing for what they expect to be a busy year in the fight over airport noise mitigation, and Mayor R.T. Rybak said he is optimistic homeowners will hear good news.

&#8220For the first time in this several decade-long fight, it's becoming clear we are starting to win some of these long fought battles,” Rybak said following a decision by a district judge last month.

As a pair of lawsuits against the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) begin their descent toward trial or settlement, city officials are building an e-mail list to help steer political pressure if needed.

Meanwhile, Southwest legislators at the state Capitol are considering an array of proposals that could reroute traffic patterns and change the way the airports commission does its business.

&#8220All of these things are coming to a head at once,” said City Council Member Scott Benson (11th Ward) whose ward includes much of the area currently affected by airport noise in Minneapolis.

Since 1992, the airports commission has spent millions on noise-buffering measures in more than 6,500 homes in Minneapolis. They've included new doors and windows, wall and attic insulation, central air systems, and vent and ductwork upgrades.

The commission has only paid for improvements in areas it says average at least 65 decibels of noise, which is the approximate volume of a leaf blower from 50 feet away. The lawsuits claim airport officials promised to extend the same protections to homes out to at least 60 decibels. Depending on who and when you ask, that could include an additional 3,500 to 16,000 homeowners in the Twin Cities.

The MAC has offered to assist homeowners in that range, buy and install central air, but it maintains the board never promised the same noise-abatement assistance that it offered in louder areas.

The bulk of those residents who say they are due noise mitigation from the MAC are east of Interstate 35W, but people in Windom and Tangletown are also affected.

An e-mail from Mayor Rybak's office last month said the city plans to use grassroots organizing to mobilize public support.

&#8220Bottom line: lawyers can't do it all,” the letter said. &#8220We need your help to keep this issue in the public eye.”

It asked residents to sign up for an e-mail list to receive updates on the progression of the city's lawsuit, notifications of upcoming meetings and information about legislative votes that could affect the airport commission's plans.

&#8220We really need citizens active,” Rybak said. They'll play an important role in this year, the mayor said, whether it's speaking at public hearings, writing letters to the editor or calling elected officials.

The mayor said he is also working with his peers in St. Cloud and Rochester to build support for diverting some cargo and night air traffic to those cities instead of Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said the Legislature will discuss the state's aviation plan. An amendment to consider changes to it passed last session but was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty as part of an omnibus transportation plan. The bill would ask stakeholders to study how air traffic should flow in the state, Dibble said. A possible outcome would be taking more advantage of other airports in the state.

Dibble said he's also considering bills that would change how airport commission members are selected and how they are held accountable.

&#8220I believe the (commission) has very little relationship to the area it serves in terms of direct accountability,” Dibble said. &#8220It's very disconnected from really taking a larger statewide view of aviation transportation and how it fits into the larger economy for the state.”

Rep. Frank Hornstein is working on a bill that would address a proposed relief package from the airports commission to Northwest Airlines. It's proposing to give the airline $290 million in rate and rent relief - money activists say should be spent on noise mitigation instead.

&#8220The reason many of us are so angry is that we were told all these years that there wasn't money for noise mitigation,” Hornstein said. &#8220Now we have all this money magically appearing.”

A draft of his bill would restrict the MAC from entering any agreement with an air carrier that includes more than $100 million in rebates or rent relief without first getting approval from the Legislature.

Hornstein said he was very pleased with a judge's decision last month in the lawsuit by affected cities against the airports commission and Northwest Airlines. Both sides recently filed motions arguing the facts were undisputedly on their side, and Hennepin County Judge Stephen Aldrich on Jan. 25 ruled partially in favor of the cities.

&#8220This court cannot allow MAC to receive the benefits of a long-fought-over public bargain and then abandon its repeated commitments upon which so many people have relied,” the order said. &#8220To rule otherwise would approve a massive public ‘bait and switch' on the homeowners and the affected cities.”

The decision say the airports commission is clearly bound to pay for noise abatement out to the 60 decibel range, but it leaves it up to a trial to determine the specific remedy. The trial is expected to begin this month.

A class-action lawsuit against the MAC on behalf of homeowners is also progressing and due in court this spring.

&#8220This was something that was promised and has not been fulfilled,” said Caroylyn Anderson, lead attorney for the homeowners.

Like in the cities' case, both sides argued the facts were undisputedly in their favor and that a trial was not necessary. A judge is expected to decide by the end of the month whether a jury will hear the case or whether the court will decide on its own.

A successful outcome for the homeowners isn't likely to end the dispute, though, Anderson said, because the MAC has indicated it likely would appeal an unfavorable verdict.

Reach Dan Haugen at 436-5088 or dhaugen@mnpubs.com.