Two grassroots groups that have opposed airport expansion in the past, LBHUSH 2 and Neighborhoods First, gathered residents Monday evening to hear about Long Beach’s noise ordinance from the people tasked with defending it — the city attorney, assistant city attorney and city prosecutor.
About 125 people turned out to the Expo Building on Atlantic Avenue in the Eighth Council District to hear the presentation. They were greeted with signs saying “No International Facility,” and organizers Rae Gaeblich (former Eighth District Councilwoman and president of HUSH2) and Joe Sopo (president of Neighborhoods First) talked about how to oppose a request to consider bringing a U.S. Customs facility to the Long Beach Airport.
That request formally came in late February from JetBlue, the dominant airline at the airport. But talks have been taking place sporadically between JetBlue and city officials since 2013, and a report about the possibility of accommodating international flights was given to the City Council in 2014 by then Airport Director Mario Rodriguez.
Those discussions were halted in February by the current City Council on a split vote, 4-3, on a motion from current Eighth District City Councilman Al Austin to halt all discussion until a Fourth District council representative was elected. That representative, Daryl Supernaw, was elected last week and will take office the first week in May. He attended Monday’s meeting.
Yet another former Eighth District Councilman, Jeff Kellogg, started the meeting talking about the long battle fought before the city’s current noise ordinance became law. Kellogg was in office for most of that battle, which started in 1981 with an effort by the city to limit commercial flights, escalated in 1983 by a lawsuit from airlines, was heard by the appellate court in 1992 (the city lost) and finally settled in 1995.
“Throughout all of that, it was always about neighborhoods and quality of life,” Kellogg said. “We were all about neighborhoods and they (the airlines) were all about business… If I’m going to take a chance, it is going to be with the neighborhoods.”
Gaeblich said that a history lesson was needed, because most of the current council did not recall the battles the neighborhoods — represented by HUSH and HUSH2 — went through first for the noise ordinance, then with the terminal expansion proposals that began shortly after JetBlue started flying out of Long Beach.
“Much of the current council were children when we were fighting the first fight,” said Gabelich, who also was a leader in the original HUSH group. “They might have stars in their eyes. I’ve always said we are a city of neighborhoods. We are not a city of commerce, of industry, but of neighborhoods. That’s where the importance lies.”
Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais, who has handled airport legal matters for the city for many years, offered a chronology leading to the current noise ordinance at the airport. He said that in 1990, while Long Beach and the airlines still were in court, Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act. That law said that municipalities don’t have the right to limit airport operations beyond what the airport can handle.
But, because Long Beach was in litigation at the time, it received an exemption from the law. That exemption holds true today, allowing the city to maintain “one of the most restrictive noise ordinances in the country.”
“We are truly unique,” Mais said. “ANCA provided the exemption and the FAA confirmed it in 2004.”
Fear of losing the exemption is the primary reason cited for opposing a customs facility at the airport. Kellogg and Gaeblich both said they had been told numerous times that it wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when someone would challenge the ordinance in court. Mais said that past councils have declined to consider amending any part of the ordinance for fear that opening it up would allow the FAA or someone else to challenge the exemption.
He did say, however, that changing Long Beach’s designation from a municipal airport to an international one would not impact the noise ordinance or open a window to challenge the city’s exemption from ANCA.
City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, who served on the Airport Advisory Board during much of the debate over expanding the terminal, said there were four ways to lose the exemption. The council could change the ordinance, there could be a ballot initiative to do so, Congress could pass a law or the city could be taken to court and lose.
“The noise ordinance protects us — until it doesn’t,” Gaeblich concluded. “We are in a very tenuous position.”
City Attorney Charles Parkin said that city staff would not do anything until 60 days after Supernaw takes office because of Austin’s action if February. That means the first time the council could discuss the customs facility request will be in July.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at email@example.com.