On March 17, 2016, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate approved amendments to the most recent funding legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, that, among other things, appear to preempt to preempt local and state efforts to regulate the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”).
In a surprising decision, Surface Transportation Board Decision, Docket No. FD35861, December 12, 2014 (“Docket”), the Federal Surface Transportation Board (“Board”) ruled that the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq., to the 114 mile high-speed passenger rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield, California is preempted in its entirety by federal law. The Board’s decision is not only surprising in the context of prevailing legal authority, but also potentially important in the context of other modes of transportation.
The Santa Monica Airport Commission has recently made a proposal to limit access of certain aircraft to Santa Monica Airport by limiting emissions allowable from those aircraft. The proposal may be public spirited in its intent, but shocking in its naiveté with respect to the preemptive authority of federal law and specifically the federal authority over emissions from aircraft engines.
The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is granted by Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the creation and enforcement of regulations governing emissions from aircraft engines. “The Administrator shall, from time to time, issue proposed emission standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of aircraft engines which in his judgment causes, or contributes to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” 42 U.S.C. § 7571(a)(2)(A) and (a)(3). There are, however, some limits on EPA’s authority.
On March 27, 2013, the Los Angeles County Airport Land Use Commission (“ALUC”) gave the latest in a series of approvals including those from Los Angeles Board of Airport of Commissioners (“BOAC”) and Los Angeles City Planning Commission, of the proposed Los Angeles International Airport Specific Plan Amendment Study Project (“Project”). The Project includes construction of a new terminal, addition of runway safety lighting, and, its centerpiece, the reconfiguration of the North Runway Complex with movement of runway 6L/24R 260 feet north.
Most notably, the Project will impose dramatic impacts on surrounding communities, including significant new noise impacts on over 14,000 people, 12,000 in the City of Inglewood alone. Moreover, the Project adversely impacts the goal of regionalization which is a centerpiece of the Stipulated Settlement signed by the Petitioners in City of El Segundo, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al., Riverside County Superior Court Case No. RIC426822. A principal goal of that settlement was, and remains, diversion of air traffic to other airports in the region, not the encouragement of access to LAX.
While its zeal to protect its citizens from the noise and emissions of aircraft arriving and departing Santa Monica Airport is commendable and understandable, the Santa Monica Airport Commission’s method is questionable. That is because its recently proposed proportional limitation on aircraft operations (i.e., a limit on future operations at some percent of current operations) appears to be contrary to Federal law.
More specifically, in a Memorandum of on or about August 2, 2012, the Airport Commission proposed a hypothetical restriction whereby “the number of daily operations would be limited to [approximately] 53% of the daily operations from prior years . . . For example, if there were 100 operations on June 6, 2012, then no more than 53 operations would be allowed on June 6, 2013.” The Vice Chairman of the Airport Commission argues that, because the proposed restriction does not discriminate between aircraft types (as a prior proposed Santa Monica ordinance limiting operations by jet aircraft did), it would withstand judicial scrutiny. The Commission has apparently forgotten about the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, 49 U.S.C. § 47521, et seq., (“ANCA”), and its prohibition on the imposition of noise or access restrictions without approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”).
Challengers to the determinations of Federal agencies do not go to court on a level playing field with their governmental adversaries. Federal courts have long taken the position that deference is properly accorded to an agency making decisions within its area of technical expertise. That position may now be changing, at least with respect to two specific sets of legal circumstances.
The California Department of Transportation, Aviation Division (“Caltrans”) has announced yet another delay in the publication of the “California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook” (“Handbook”). The Handbook constitutes guidance for California’s airport land use commissions (“ALUC”) in the establishment of height, density and intensity restrictions for land uses around California airports. This delay continues and even increases the risk of conflict between ALUCs and local land use jurisdictions throughout California.
ALUC restrictions are not the last word concerning land uses around airports, as local land use jurisdictions have final authority to approve or disapprove land uses within their own boundaries. However, ALUC restrictions can make it more difficult for a local jurisdiction to effectuate previously enacted development plans in the vicinity of an airport. This is because, to overcome the ALUC determination of inconsistency with ALUC restrictions, the local jurisdiction must overrule the ALUC by a two-thirds vote, a hurdle often difficult if not impossible to overcome because of fears of liability.