City hires new expert on noise

Consultant expected to help resolve controversy over noise from flightseeing aircraft

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

City Manager Dave Palmer has hired an attorney who specializes in aviation to advise the city about the legality of its options for mitigating flight noise.

Curfews on operations, changes in flight paths and altitudes, and other considerations can cut across jurisdictional boundaries, Palmer said.

"What makes Juneau unique is we have operations at the airport, which means there are implications with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)," he said. That may not be the case with Era Helicopter's operations from its site, or with operations taking off from Gastineau Channel near downtown.

The letter of agreement to Richard Durden, a partner in a Grand Rapids, Mich., law firm, stipulates a $200-per-hour rate - with a cap of $6,000, Palmer said - and spells out the scope of the work:

In the legal context, describe the extent of the city's jurisdiction with regard to limiting flightseeing noise. Analyze options for mitigation and describe positive or negative impacts.

Analyze and evaluate the options for land-use regulations to limit flightseeing noise at the airport, on a private existing heliport, on navigable waters downtown, and on city-owned undeveloped property.

Examine whether the city can establish a limited entry policy to regulate new entries into the flightseeing business or limit the expansion of existing operations.

Palmer introduced Durden to the Juneau Assembly at the its meeting Monday night.

Durden described himself as an aviation lawyer and member of two environmental organizations. He said he was "working at identifying the issues" and at "what the locale can do and why, and cannot do and why."

He will have a report for the assembly "in about a month," he said, but cautioned that "there is no magic wand or silver bullet. There will be fuzzy areas."

In his resume, Durden lists having practiced aviation law for 22 years, including aircraft accident litigation; representing pilots and mechanics in enforcement actions brought by the FAA; "environmental matters" involving aircraft noise; and representing commercial aircraft operators.

"I think it's a good idea that the city seek independent counsel," said Juneau attorney Ray Preston, a longtime flight-noise mitigation activist. "In Juneau, there has been a company-town mentality ..."

The city law department's approach "has always been that it's best to do nothing," Preston said.

Preston said it would be good for the city to get an objective view, though "whether this particular view will be objective or not, I can't tell."

Assembly Planning and Policy Committee Chairman Jim Powell said he was looking forward to working with Durden.

Powell said Monday night that looking at the legal aspects of mitigating flight noise was but one aspect of his committee's approach to tour-flight noise. In addition to legal considerations, the committee will soon issue a request for proposals for a comprehensive tourism plan, to be funded by the cruise-ship passenger fee; is studying alternative heliport sites; is preparing a formal response to the Forest Service's issuance of permits last fall for more than 19,000 helicopter glacier landings; and is about to receive the final report of the noise study commissioned by the city last summer.

"This is taking off," Powell said. "We're really flying now."

Palmer said he had occasion to meet Durden because he and the lawyer are volunteer pilots and board members of LightHawk, an organization that uses general aviation aircraft to expose mismanagement of public lands and to conduct research into ecological and conservation issues throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Palmer said he has done his volunteer flying in Belize, in Central America.-

Fernand Chandonnet can be reached at

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