City limited on curbing tour noise

But legal study says a deal with operators still may be possible

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

A negotiated agreement with Juneau's flightseeing operators perhaps is the best way for the city to address community concerns about aircraft noise, according to a legal analysis prepared by an attorney who specializes in aviation law.

The city hired attorney Rick Durden of Michigan in January to evaluate options in mitigating aircraft noise at the airport, at private heliports, on navigable waters downtown and on city-owned property. The city released the 15-page final report late last week.

Enacting a noise control ordinance would be "extremely difficult, expensive and time consuming," the report said. The federal government regulates aircraft, flightseeing and aircraft noise with a small exception for communities to control noise surrounding airports they own, according to the report.

A city flightseeing ban probably would not withstand judicial scrutiny, the report said. A ban, reduction in the number of flights or a curfew could be pursued only at a city-owned heliport or airport, the report added.

"My recommendation is that the most expedient method to solving the noise issue is for the CBJ to enter into negotiations with the operators ... to reach a noise reduction operating agreement," Durden wrote.

Durden suggests that an agreement set up one or two heliports well away from the city with the city limiting nearby residential development. He said alternative heliports probably couldn't be set up immediately and the city likely would need to provide financial assistance to move operators. It would be impossible to find a route that didn't fly over hiking trails, he said.

Fly Quiet or Fly Neighborly initiatives such as those included in the city's voluntary compliance program need to be part of the eventual solution, according to the report. Flightseeing in Juneau is a complex issue, Durden said, but residents seem willing to address the situation.

"I wish as there was a simple, magic button to push to satisfy everyone, but sadly there's not. The community doesn't have as much power as some people hope it would have," he said.

According to Durden, the city has virtually no power to require helicopters to use new, quieter technology by ordinance but can encourage such use through financial incentives.

The city has more flexibility in regulating seaplanes. It has authority to limit noise from boats and aircraft and may prohibit commercial or all seaplane operations on Gastineau Channel, according to the report. Durden also recommended the city pursue a negotiated agreement with seaplane operators.

Amy Windred, base manager at ERA in Juneau, said the report didn't include any surprises.

"We're trying to do as much as we can to work through the process with everybody and we'll continue to work in that direction," she said.

Wings of Alaska President Bob Jacobsen said an agreement through negotiation will make the most difference in the short run.

"We've done a lot collectively over the years and there's a lot more that can be accomplished," he said.

Community activist Kim Metcalfe said the study plays down the significance of aircraft noise in Juneau, but said she was encouraged by suggestions that the city could pursue zoning to address channel flights.

"I'd like to see the city try to negotiate something. It's the easiest thing, rather than passing an ordinance," she said.

Attorney Ray Preston of the Peace and Quiet Coalition said he was disappointed in the report, describing the approach as biased toward the aviation industry. He said the analysis doesn't take Juneau's unique circumstances fully into account.

"We can always talk about sitting down and reasoning together. It hasn't worked so far. If you stick to the legal side of things, he's done us all a disservice and it's unfortunate," he said.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said Juneau Assembly members will have a chance to discuss the report. It's up to the Assembly to decide how to proceed, she said.

Assembly Planning and Policy Committee Chairman Jim Powell said the report is a jumping-off point.

"There are things we can do. There aren't many and we're widely restricted. There are joint jurisdictional issues and many agencies have a piece of this pie. We're one and we're going to do what we can do to complement voluntary measures," he said.

The report is part of a puzzle that includes an ongoing noise study, a heliport site analysis, route and equipment discussions, City Manager Dave Palmer said. The study cost approximately $15,000, he said.

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