Saturday, November 24, 2007

Santa Monica Airport Should Vanish! Noise and Air Pollution in Residential Communities --- A Coasian Conundrum

The Coase Theorem will not go away. Today's New York Times has a nice case study of the rising costs of air and noise pollution generated by a local airport in West Los Angeles. For those of you who only think about Kobe Bryant and Paris Hilton when you do think about LA, permit me to provide some details.

Santa Monica Airport is located in Santa Monica. This pretty town is located adjacent to the Pacific Ocean 5 miles west of UCLA. This is a densely populated area where single detached homes sit on lots that average around 5,000 square feet. As this article describes, the problem is that over time more and more planes are landing at the Santa Monica Airport and they are larger, noiser planes. We noticed this when we visited friends in Rancho Park/Cheviot Hills --- these should be nice UCLA residential communities but instead you are bombarded by airplane noise. It reminded me of my youth when I would be at Shea Stadium watching Mets baseball games and planes would fly over every 10 minutes.

What I don't see here in this article is a discussion of the basic issue of who has the property rights here? Do property owners have the right to quiet? Clearly there is going to be a fight when this flight law expires in 2015.

November 24, 2007
Santa Monica Journal
Enemy Aircraft Sighted and, Above All Else, Heard


SANTA MONICA, Calif., Nov. 23 — Virginia Ernst sat on her living room couch, her face turned toward the ceiling. The high-pitch grind of a jet engine split the air about 100 feet above her home.

“That’s a Challenger,” said Margaret Williamson. “No,” Ms. Ernst replied, “it’s a Citation. It reminds me of a dentist’s drill.”

The Challenger and the Citation are popular lines of corporate jets. The Citation is louder, explained Ms. Ernst, in her mid-60s, but the Challenger is bigger, and shakes her house’s windows and walls. Either way, the jets, and others like them, are a source of frustration to residents, who complain of not only their roaring engines but also their noxious fumes.

Since the 1960s, both Ms. Ernst and Ms. Williamson have resided beneath the flight path of planes arriving at Santa Monica Airport, one of the oldest general aviation airports in the country and among those closest to residential neighborhoods. Ms. Ernst’s house is 300 feet from the only runway, Ms. Williamson’s is 50 feet closer, and the noise in recent years has only worsened. Jet traffic there has almost doubled since 1999, to 19,000 takeoffs and landings so far this year, says the airport’s manager, Bob Trimborn, even as traffic of small piston-driven planes has declined.

The rise in private-jet travel is being driven in part by long check-in and security lines at major airports. Those waits make private flying attractive to wealthy travelers, while at the same time fractional-jet-ownership companies are making it possible for more corporations to send their executives off in style. The developments have stoked the anger of residents here, who say jet fumes endanger their health and jet noise threatens their sanity.

“You’ve got the celebrities, you’ve got the power players here,” said Bill Rosendahl, a city councilman in neighboring Los Angeles. “Frankly, I say to the super-rich, go to another airport,” because “this is an environmental issue that affects real people.”

The 227-acre airport was built in 1919, when the land for miles around was largely open fields. But with the 1921 opening of the Douglas Aircraft Company here and then the end of World War II and the Korean War, a residential building boom swept the area, spurred by demand from Douglas employees and returning military pilots.

In 1984, after a series of lawsuits, the City of Santa Monica, which owns the airport, signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration not to limit jet traffic there. The agreement (which also imposed some regulations on engine noise) does not expire until 2015, but a number of public officials, among them Mr. Rosendahl, Assemblyman Ted W. Lieu and Representative Jane Harman, are working for an early change to what they describe as a pact that has outlived its time. They are pushing for both state and federal legislation that would limit the size and number of jets at the airport.

Opponents of that effort say Santa Monica, one of 249 “reliever” airports across the country that help unclog congestion at major airports nearby, must remain open to all types of jets using Los Angeles International, five miles to the south. Indeed, any bill limiting jet operations would have to supersede both the 1984 accord and existing law.

“Under federal law, the airport cannot restrict the type of aircraft that can land,” said Bill Dunn, vice president for airports at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “The problem is that people live right next to the airport because of poor local planning decisions.”

The flight paths extending from the runways of Santa Monica and Los Angeles International Airports converge over the Pacific. That means the airports have to coordinate inbound and outbound flights in an elaborately choreographed dance. “We shuffle our cards into their deck,” Mr. Trimborn said.

That can lead to idling engines at Santa Monica that send exhaust out across Bundy Drive, the four-lane thoroughfare that separates the airport from the homes of Ms. Ernst and her neighbors, including the founder and director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, Martin Rubin. Mr. Rubin stood on the sidewalk the other day, pointing to nearby homes and speaking of cancer cases there that he says are tied to airport pollution.

But it is hard to link pollution to specific sources, said Philip M. Fine, manager of atmospheric measurements for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for all or parts of four Southern California counties. Dr. Fine ran a recent study of air quality around Santa Monica Airport that was financed by a federal grant to measure toxins in the air around general aviation airports. The study, he said, found levels of lead and other toxins in the community around the airport here “well below” federal and state limits.

That is little comfort to the Rubin family and others who fault the study for not noting levels of acrolein, a harmful byproduct of jet fuel known to cause respiratory irritation.

“We’ve always had a nice westerly breeze here,” said Mr. Rubin’s wife, Joan. “But now the breeze brings the jet fumes in. They smell like kerosene and burn your throat.”

Marc Carrel, deputy chief of staff for Representative Harman, is also skeptical, saying too little time passed between the boom in private-jet traffic and the study.

“It’s sick to say, but you need a long-term impact to see long-term effects,” Mr. Carrel said.

Mr. Trimborn, the airport’s manager, says he is not the bad guy. Citing the binding nature of the 1984 agreement, he said: “I try to be as open and honest as possible all the time with residents. If I tell someone this plane’s not going to fly over your house and then it does, they’ll be angry with me. But I don’t tell them that. They know I can’t control it.”

He pointed to a photograph, dated 1924, on his office wall. It showed a row of five Douglas World Cruisers, biplanes with exposed seats. Back then, neither local land-use planners nor anyone else “saw a Gulfstream IV flying out of Santa Monica and going to the East Coast,” he said.

“We’re dealing with development over many years,” Mr. Trimborn added. “So the dynamic between the airport and the community, that’s inescapable.”