Proposed Airport Expansion Hits Turbulence

Residents argue over noise, safety and the right to a good night’s sleep
By Mike White
The Tri-Valley (CA) Herald LIVERMORE — When Ralph Huy began flying into Livermore 18 years ago, few homes were visible around the airport.

“They moved the airport once before because of neighbors,” Huy said, referring to the airport’s relocation in 1965 from Rincon Avenue to its present location in west Livermore.

“Then they built houses right to the end of the runway, and they complain about the noise,” Huy said.

Indeed “they” have. Hundreds of residents in Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin have poured into meetings on the airport’s proposed expansion. The next meeting in Livermore has been relocated from the City Council Chambers to the Shrine Event Center to handle the expected turnout. The Planning Commission meeting begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the center, 170 Lindbergh Ave., Livermore.

For the past decade, the 643-acre airport has been ranked as either the 10th or 11th busiest airport in California, although it dipped to 14th last year because of the fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Under the proposed expansion, the number of flights at the airport could rise from 257,500 in 2001 to 370,000 in 2020, an increase of 44 percent. The project also calls for extending the shorter of two runways to 4,000 feet. The longer runway will remain at 5,255 feet long.

Many residents said the expansion will promote more noise, but some are doing more than raising their voices and writing letters. Linda Castillo, a mother and graduate student, is moving out.

In the three years she has lived in west Livermore, the noise from planes, she said, has risen significantly and she is worried the expansion will make things worse.

Additionally, her property value could plummet with the expansion, she said. So she and her family have sold their home and are moving to Pleasanton.

Disputes over noise and other issues at the Livermore Municipal Airport are part of a national debate about the role of small airports in residential areas. There are extreme voices on both sides — some say airports don’t belong near homes, and others say people are crazy for moving next to airports in the first place.

One of the centers of the debate is Concord. The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors last week decided to consider proposals to relocate Buchanan Field Airport, perhaps to a less populated area in East County. Worries over the conflict between people and planes burst into the public consciousness on April 15 when a plane that had taken off from Buchanan crash-landed on Interstate 680. Amazingly, no one died.

Safety concerns occasionally fuels the debate over small airports, but statistics suggest there is little to fear. The odds of someone on the ground dying as the result of a plane crash are 30-million-to-1, or 50 times less likely than being killed by a shark, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

What has people up in arms is noise.

Those fighting airport noise have several groups on their side, including Stop the Noise, a nonprofit corporation in Harvard, Mass., that is working to “restore quiet to the skies above our communities.”

Bill Burgoyne, the group’s president, said airports do not belong in growing residential areas. Speaking in general terms and not about the Livermore situation, he said airports should only be built in places where the surrounding land remains undeveloped.

“The airport developer should have acquired all of the property around his proposed airport prior to building the airport. This would have ensured that no one would build under the traffic patterns or within the noise footprint of operations. He should have also purchased enough land for expansion and noisier aircraft. Instead he purchased the smallest, affordable parcel, built the airport, and then expected the abutters to abandon their development rights in deference to the glory of things that fly,” Burgoyne said.

“The real issues are that noise is not yet seen as a serious environmental and health problem, and that aviation is treated as though it was the greatest thing in the world and most be protected and promoted at all costs. Both of these perceptions must change,” he said.

There were attempts in Livermore to prevent homes being built near the airport. For years, the city has used Federal Aviation Administration grants to buy land around the airport and insulate homes from noise. To the west, the nearest homes must be at least 7,100 feet away. In all other directions, Livermore restricts new homes to 1 mile away. The closest homes to the airport predate these policies, and are located one-half mile away in west Livermore.

The longsighted effort to preserve land around the Valley’s only airport won Pleasanton aviator and lead advocate Connie Eccles (who has since moved to Chico) a national award.

Despite the effort, homes continued to go up on Pleasanton’s east end, just beyond the airport’s 7,100-foot limit. In east Dublin, homes have been built less than two miles from the airport, and the city has plans to build additional homes less than one mile from the runway.

“Quite frankly, I think it is stupid for someone to move next to an airport and then complain about the noise,” said David Ross, who works in Pleasanton as a report analyst and is an aviation enthusiast. “It would be like moving next to a railroad track and complaining about the noise. Just because there wasn’t a train going down the tracks when they were looking at the home, doesn’t mean it is always going to be quiet.”

Jeff Myers, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, compared airport noise to a child getting his or her first shot. The child remembers the pain from the shot, not the life-long benefits of the vaccine.

An airport near one’s house might not be painful but it certainly can be noisy. Nonetheless, Myers said people should understand the benefits.

“General aviation is not just a bunch of rich people flying to Aspen and back, although there is some of that. Airports bring CEOs, factories and jobs. It is where future pilots for commercial airlines and the military learn to fly,” he said.

However, of the more than 5,000 airports open for public use, one closes every week in this country, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. While the number of airports is shrinking, more and more people are getting their pilot’s license. The number of pilots is expected to climb to 825,000 by the year 2011, up from 640,000 in 1999, according to FAA statistics.

Increasing demand is evident in Livermore, where there is a waiting list of more than 180 people for a hangar. Craig Sjoberg, a Pleasanton dentist who flies out of Livermore, said he has been waiting for his own hangar for 16 years.

Under the plan, hangar space would increase by more than 1 million square feet. The new construction would allow the number of planes based at the airport (this number includes planes tied-down outside of hangars) to jump to 898, an increase of 51 percent.

These and other aspects of the expansion might have gone unnoticed by neighbors if not for what they described as loud flying late at night and early in the morning. The late flights created ill will in the neighborhoods, residents said. Castillo, the Livermore resident who is moving to Pleasanton, recalled how her kids woke up crying at 2 a.m. because of the noise.

For the past two years, the airport has voluntarily asked pilots not to fly between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and neighbors said many pilots appear to be following the request, especially in the past few months.

But some say they think the night flights will return after the expansion is approved. Airport officials said the policy will remain in effect, and that even if night flights occur modern planes are quieter than ever before.

Around the country, night flights are a rallying point for those concerned with small airports, said Les Blomberg, head of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse based in Montpelier, Vt. “No matter what the FAA says, they have not built a plane that will not wake people up.”

Opponents of the expansion have said repeatedly they are fine with the airport as-is, they just don’t want it to expand. They said they moved to the neighborhood with the expectation the airport would remain in its current state, and Blomberg is sympathetic. He has heard similar concerns from people around the country.

Airport supporters often say the airport was there first ? a situation that is true in Livermore — and Blomberg said the reverse should also be true.

“The people moved in there with the noise at a certain level,” he said. “They have a right to expect that level not to increase.”

Some also want pilots to show more courtesy.

“It is the ones who fly low who we are concerned about. We feel that if the airport does double in flights, the number of people flying low will just increase,” said Gary Takemura, a Livermore resident who has organized his neighbors against the expansion.

As for Castillo, she is looking forward to her new home in Pleasanton. However, the new home is still located on the path of planes heading away from the airport.

“I am hoping things will be quieter on the takeoff side. At least the planes will be higher up,” she said.