Portola Valley has taken another step along a hard road. The Town Council is going ahead with plans to hire a consultant to analyze commercial aircraft noise and develop options to amplify complaints about the altitude and routes of the flights.
Members of the council and a few dedicated residents have been unsuccessful in persuading the Federal Aviation Administration to do something about engine noise coming from flights on their way into San Francisco International Airport.
Community representatives from the Peninsula meet regularly with SFO to talk about noise, but residents of Portola Valley and Ladera may have a special case because they live at higher altitudes. (Parts of Woodside have been affected in the past, but less so as routes have changed, a Woodside official told the Almanac.)
Air-traffic authorities argue that noise is secondary to traffic management in an airspace that is becoming more crowded. Air-traffic controllers need routing flexibility in order to keep aircraft at safe intervals in three-dimensional space as they approach a major metropolitan airport with only two runways.
If Portola Valley's arguments haven't been hitting home with the large and complex FAA, maybe consultants, outsiders who used to be insiders, can help. Town Manager Nick Pegueros, acting on the council's consensus on June 10, has up to $7,500 to engage a consulting firm of former FAA employees who know the ropes.
The objective: an independent analysis, based on data, to find alternatives to the current situation. Has noise increased, and if so, why? What can be done? Maybe planes could fly higher. Maybe air-traffic controllers could diversify the routes.
Key questions will be how much data to analyze and where to put sound monitors, Mr. Pegueros said.
While Portola Valley and Ladera are not alone in their complaints, the study is not expected to include similarly affected communities such as Palo Alto and Atherton.
A thread in a rug
At the heart of the matter is a 2014 environmental report, commissioned by the FAA, that projected airport arrival routes out to 2019 and found no significant noise impacts on the ground.
Disputing these findings are Dr. Tina Nguyen of Portola Valley, Jim Lyons of Woodside and others who track altitudes of local flights. A hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on their September 2014 petition is expected in early 2016, said attorney and Portola Valley resident Vic Schachter.
The FAA has so far refused to meet with a mediator, saying in essence that, "Portola Valley is a thread in a much bigger rug," Mr. Schachter said. While that's true, he said, one question is whether the distribution of incoming flights is fair.
If the parties cannot resolve their differences, the court will set a schedule to file briefs. "They're going to have some good legal arguments," Mr. Schachter said. "We've got an uphill battle."
One hope expressed by town officials is a noise analysis that yields compelling findings that resonate with the Peninsula's congressional representatives.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, has a history on the issue. In 2001, she arranged an agreement with the FAA to have aircraft stay at least 8,000 feet above sea level when passing over these communities.
An experienced commercial pilot told the Almanac that such noise-abatement policies are a low priority for pilots and air-traffic controllers. An analysis of 2009-12 data by Dr. Nguyen, Mr. Schachter and Mr. Lyons showed 88 percent of flights crossing at altitudes below 8,000 feet, and about 28 percent below 6,000 feet.
No silver bullets
As concerns about noise proliferate in the region, the communities may have an advantage if the FAA wants to be seen as effectively managing complaints, said Councilwoman Ann Wengert. But the town should not expect miracles, she said.
"I don't have the expectation that (the consultant) is going to have a bullet, a silver bullet that we're going to be able to fire right at the FAA and they'll say, 'Whoa, boy, that's something we may have to consider,'" Ms. Wengert said.
If a proposal is well-defined and specific, said Councilman Craig Hughes, the FAA may be more likely to get involved and refine it to something workable.
Definitive proposals will be important in getting congressional assistance, Councilwoman Maryann Derwin said. "If we want their help, they are actually going to want to see A, B and C solutions," she said.