Long Beach Airport- Another Bitter Late Night City Hall Debate

Sunday, February 6, 2005
Council ponders size of airport project
By Felix Sanchez
The Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram

LONG BEACH – It was yet another bitter late night City Hall debate over Long Beach Airport last Tuesday. But this time, as City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich faced a sea of supporters, many blanketing the chambers in a sea of neon orange “Say NO to Airport Expansion” signs, she knew things were different.

Gabelich had just finished a more than 20-minute address slamming failures by the city’s staff and management over the last nearly two years to respond to key questions and concerns by the council and homeowners about the potential impact of terminal improvements on neighborhoods.

The address received a long standing ovation from more than 300 residents who jammed the Council Chambers, and made at least one council member reconsider her position about how big the airport project should be during a vote that will come Tuesday during a regular City Council meeting.

“You’ve gained a fan,” Councilwoman Laura Richardson, a one-time advocate of airport “super-sizing,” told Gabelich afterward.

Gabelich called her speech “very liberating.

“You know, prior to that, I’d always been on the other side of the podium,” said Gabelich, who led the rebirth of the neighborhood activist group, LBHUSH2, before being elected to the council primarily because of airport issues.

“I think when people are only given three minutes to speak and communicate, it’s very hard to get the whole story out there,” Gabelich said.

“You can only do it piece by piece.”

Gabelich will see Tuesday night if the echoes of her words are still strong enough to sway a majority of council members to swing their support to a smaller “compromise” version of airport improvements favored by Gabelich, LBHUSH2 and some residents.

Focus at issue

During its 5 p.m. regular meeting Tuesday, the council will vote on what size of project should be the focus of an environmental impact report and what issues related to the project should be studied. Those could range from health, environmental, quality of life and economic.

But the airport’s biggest tenant, JetBlue Airways, said it is very concerned with the movement toward a smaller project, and away from one that was approved and endorsed by a process started by the council nearly two years ago that JetBlue agreed to follow.

Robert Land, JetBlue Airways vice president for government affairs at the airline’s New York headquarters, spoke with several city staff and elected officials late last week to relay the airline’s side.

In particular, Land lashed out at three Airport Advisory Commission members Douglas Haubert, Carol Soccio and Bruce Alton who have been pushing for a smaller project even though the commission majority voted to endorse the larger plan to the council.

Their latest argument came in a Sunday Press-Telegram opinion page column.

“We think it’s disgraceful that there are people who think they are experts in airport design and airline customer satisfaction dictating this policy,” Land said. “They didn’t like what the recommendations are so now they are saying ‘we don’t have to follow them.” I think it’s a disgrace to citizens.”

“JetBlue is not out to build a Taj Mahal. We need to rid ourselves of the embarrassment . the trailer park city out there. We want to put in not posh but adequate facilities,” Land said.

JetBlue’s options

The airline, which uses Long Beach as its West Coast operational hub, will weigh its options after Tuesday’s vote. They include seeking a public referendum on the issue, or seeking a resolution with the Federal Aviation Administration, although that alternative is still in the study stage.

“One of our options includes sitting back and being very disappointed, which, regrettably, is not a new thing for JetBlue in the city of Long Beach,” Land said.

“It’s our very strong hope that this is all sort of moot talk, that the council will do the right thing.”

The city and its contractor, HNTB, support a project that would increase the terminal to 133,243 square feet from its current 58,320 square feet by adding new permanent passenger holding rooms (which would replace temporary ones now in use), counter space, offices, concession areas, restrooms and parking positions for airplanes.

It is a project size that was endorsed in a split vote by the city’s Airport Advisory Commission after 16 months of public meetings.

But Gabelich is rallying support for one that would increase the terminal only to 102,980 square feet and help minimize the potential impact on neighborhoods and the possibility the airport would be forced to take more daily commercial flights than now allowed by a strict city noise ordinance.

The EIR should also study alternatives to that project, but only ones that are smaller than 102,980 square feet, effectively icing out the larger proposal, Gabelich and fellow council members Tonia Reyes Uranga and Patrick O’Donnell argue.

Even at only 103,000 feet, the proposal is still larger than a 93,500-square-foot project the city staff had endorsed nearly two years ago when debate first started on the issue, she said.

Yearlong task

The EIR will take about a year to complete, and then the council will be set for a showdown vote on whether to approve any airport improvements at all. The city says the new additions are needed because the airport is now serving 3 million passengers annually, a number that could grow with new commuter plane service allowed by the city’s noise ordinance. Gabelich said any plan must be one that the city, airlines and residential communities can live with and that protects neighborhoods around the airport. Nothing less.

After her speech, as council members Richardson, Val Lerch and Frank Colonna gave hints that they had problems with the larger airport project and leaned toward a smaller one being the focus of an EIR, Gabelich was heartened.

“Yes, I was surprised,” Gabelich said. “I was also grateful. That said to me that they were listening. That they really did understand the side of the community.

“It was a good thing. A very good thing.”