On March 6, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced the 60-day extension of the comment period for the January 8, 2014 proposed “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units” and the February 26, 2014 notice of data availability soliciting comments on the provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County.
Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .” Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest. December 17, 2013. The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1. The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department.
Therein lies the rub.
California Legislators Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of Burbank achieved the seemingly impossible in Congress’ January 14 passage of the $1.012 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, H.R. 3547 (“Appropriations Act”). The Appropriations Act contains a provision, § 119D, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to achieve reductions in helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles Basin by 2015. That section specifies certain voluntary measures, which, if unsuccessful in achieving the desired reductions within one year, must give way to FAA regulations to achieve the stated purposes.
Specifically, § 119D mandates that:
“The Secretary shall (1) evaluate and adjust existing helicopter routes above Los Angeles, and make adjustments to such routes if the adjustments would lessen impacts on residential areas and noise-sensitive landmarks; (2) analyze whether helicopters could safely fly at higher altitudes in certain areas above Los Angeles County; (3) develop and promote best practices for helicopter hovering and electronic news gathering; (4) conduct outreach to helicopter pilots to inform them of voluntary policies and to increase awareness of noise sensitive areas and events; (5) work with local stakeholders to develop a more comprehensive noise complaint system; and (6) continue to participate in collaborative engagement between community representatives and helicopter operators: Provided, That not later than one year after enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall begin a regulatory process related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life and safety of the people of Los Angeles County unless the Secretary can demonstrate significant progress in undertaking the actions required under the previous proviso.”
Although a seeming triumph for noise impacted communities, the Appropriations Act is neither an unalloyed victory nor does it set a precedent for future legislative initiatives for the following reasons:
On December 4, 2013, Representative Joseph Crowley of a district in the Bronx and Queens, New York, heavily impacted by operations at LaGuardia Airport, introduced the “Quiet Skies Act” (H.R. 3650). Supported by a variety of Congresspersons from other similarly impacted districts, the Act requires passenger airlines to replace or retrofit 25% of their fleets every five years until 2035 to meet a “Stage 4” standard, approximately 10 decibels lower than currently approved “Stage 3” engines.
The conversion mandated by the Act might seem to result in significant relief to populations impacted by frequent overflights of Stage 3 aircraft. There are, however, at least two conditions significantly vitiating the Act’s impacts.
Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name). 78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013). That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.
The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”). Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has published in the Federal Register an “Invitation to Comment on Draft FAA Order 5100-38, Airport Improvement Program Handbook” (“Draft AIP Handbook”).
The Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) is an airport grant program, pursuant to Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq. (“AAIA”). The Draft AIP Handbook contains regulations implementing the AIP. This updated version incorporates substantial changes to the governing statutes, including the recently enacted FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
While FAA usually does not solicit comments on what it calls “internal orders” (claiming that the Draft AIP Handbook “contains instructions to FAA employees on implementing the AIP”), FAA recognizes the broad impacts of the Draft AIP Handbook, and the impact on all segments of the airport community of its implementation. Therefore, FAA is accepting comments until March 18, 2013.
Responding to the concerns of pilots and the California Energy Commission (“CEC”) regarding the impact of exhaust plumes from power plants on overflying aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) Airport Obstruction Standard Committee (“AOSC”) completed a Supplement to FAA’s 2006 guidance [“Safety Risk Analysis of Aircraft Overflight of Industrial Exhaust Plumes”]. The purpose of the Supplement is to enhance current FAA regulations which only address standards for the physical height of the smoke stacks, and omit regulation of the impacts of the smoke plume emitted from the stacks, or the emissions contained in them.
The Supplement is also aimed at obtaining definitive answers to the questions: (1) how much turbulence is created by exhaust plumes; (2) is this turbulence great enough to cause loss of pilot control; (3) if so, what size aircraft are impacted; (4) is there a lack of oxygen causing loss of engine power or danger to pilots/passengers; and, if so, (5) what is the harm to those pilots and passengers?
For two years, from 2008 to 2010, the AOSC conducted a Plume Report Study, which was ultimately determined to need further verification and validation. In 2011, FAA retained the Federally funded Research and Development Center, operated by Mitre Corporation to answer the questions specified in the earlier Plume Report. The Mitre Study was completed in September 2012 and verified both FAA’s model and what the earlier FAA reports and studies had concluded.
Spurred on by Congress, FAA has issued a proposed policy revising its current position “concerning through-the-fence access to a federally obligated airport from an adjacent or nearby property, when that property is used as a residence.” 77 Fed.Reg. 44515, Monday, July 30, 2012. FAA’s current position, set forth in its previously published interim policy of March 18, 2011, 76 Fed.Reg. 15028, prohibited new residential “through-the-fence” access to Federally obligated airports.
The change came in response to Congress’ passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”) on February 14, 2012. Section 136 of FMRA permits general aviation (“GA”) airports, defined by the statute as “a public airport . . . that does not have commercial service or has scheduled service with less than 2,500 passenger boardings each year,” to extend or enter into residential through-the-fence agreements with property owners, or associations representing property owners, under specified conditions. 77 Fed.Reg. 44516. Sponsors of commercial service airports, however, are treated quite differently.
It has come to our attention that a legal colleague has authored a blog analogizing the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Obama Administration’s health care legislation (“Obamacare”), National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Sebelius, et al., 567 U.S. ___ (2012), to the Federal statutes preempting state and local control of the regulation of aircraft operations and their free and open access to airports. The blog attempts to make the case that, because the Court ruled that the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution does not justify requiring all uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance, so the Commerce Clause somehow cannot justify exclusive Federal regulation of the “safety of navigable airspace,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), and airlines “rates, routes and charges,” 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). This analysis not only manifestly misapprehends the clear distinction between the two cases, but can also send a damaging message to those who justifiably seek legally supportable means of controlling airport impacts.
In a surprising climax to the long controversy concerning helicopter flights and attendant noise impacts on the North Shore communities of New York’s Suffolk County, the FAA, on July 6, issued a “Final Rule,” making mandatory the current voluntary flight path for helicopters one mile offshore, but allowing the “Final Rule” to sunset on August 6, 2014, two years from the effective date, “unless the FAA determines a permanent rule is merited.” The route commences 20 miles northeast of LaGuardia, near Huntington, New York, and remains approximately one mile offshore until reaching Orient Point, near the eastern end of Long Island, with deviations allowed for safety reasons, and to allow helicopters to transit over land to reach their ultimate destinations.
The FAA discloses that its decision to promulgate the original voluntary rule arose from the numerous complaints of noise from helicopter overflights brought to its attention by Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Representative Tim Bishop of Long Island’s North Shore in October, 2007. The subsequent mandatory rule apparently resulted from continued political pressure by residents who are “unbearably and negatively” impacted, particularly during the summer months when the number of helicopters, as well as deviations from the voluntary routing, seem to increase dramatically. The real surprises in the “Final Rule,” however, are FAA’s rationale for: (1) making the route mandatory, a rationale which seems to apply equally to currently voluntarily procedures at other airports; and (2) the Rule’s sunset provision.