Airplane noise makes Adam Ullman a little bit crazy.
Not the noise of all airplanes, but the noise of a particular plane, the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop, which is the plane that commuter airline Surf Air flies in and out of the San Carlos Airport up to 45 times a day, quite often directly over the North Fair Oaks home where Mr. Ullman, his wife and two young children live.
In April, Mr. Ullman, a non-practicing attorney, did something about it. He filed a lawsuit in small claims court, claiming the county owned him $5,000 because it had failed "to mitigate the continuous public nuisance of very loud aircraft flying over my home."
In June, Judge Pro Tem Dale Major awarded Mr. Ullman $1,000 plus his $65 court filing fee. He'd won.
"I haven't been that happy since passing the bar," says Mr. Ullman, who went to law school but is not licensed to practice in California. "It felt good to be vindicated. I'm in the right here. I've known that from day one."
Although $1,000 is probably not even a rounding error in the county's legal budget, the county is taking the lawsuit quite seriously. Although neither side can be represented by an attorney in small claims court, Mr. Ullman says the county sent a number of heavy hitters to the May hearing, including Public Works Director Jim Porter and Airport Manager Gretchen Kelly.
On June 29, the county appealed the small claims judgement. The matter is now scheduled to be heard on Aug. 26 at 9 a.m. in San Mateo County Superior Court. Mr. Ullman says he will serve as his own attorney for the appeal.
In the meantime, at least three other people have taken the first step toward small claims court lawsuits. They've filed claims against the county with the same allegations: the county failed to mitigate a continuing nuisance. They are asking for damages ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.
Soon after the small claims court decision was announced in the Ullman case, Supervisor Don Horsley said in an interview that the county will appeal it and "so will the FAA." "We're not going to let that stand," he said.
If residents could win lawsuits claiming local governments have a responsibility to stop nuisance noise from airports, "you'd have people constantly suing you," Mr. Horsley said. "They'd end up shutting (all airports) down."
Local government, he said, does not have authority over airport noise. "The only thing we can control is the land."
Mr. Horsley, who has worked closely with Mr. Ullman on the issues of noise from Surf Air and the San Carlos Airport, said he does not fault him. "He's got to prod us," he said. "I keep telling him: don't worry, we're prodded."
The county has other legal liabilities to worry about with the airport, including the possibility that Surf Air, which has received at least $18.8 million in venture capital funding, will sue the county if airport changes affect the airline's business.
He said the county, which is in the midst of a study of the San Carlos Airport, is working on the airport noise issue in a "methodical and thoughtful and appropriate way" so the county doesn't end up risking major lawsuits.
"We have to be responsible to all the taxpayers," Mr. Horsley said. "We can't jeopardize them."
"I have no desire to harm the company," he said, referring to Surf Air, "but I want to be able to control" it as much as possible on the ground, he said.
Mr. Ullman said he believes the county could also be worried about lawsuits from pilots and businesses over changes in airport operations.
San Mateo County Deputy County Counsel Brian Wong will probably represent the county in the appeal against Mr. Ullman's nuisance claim. "We don't think it's the right outcome," he said, adding that the county believes working with the Federal Aviation Authority is the "best way to resolve these ongoing issues."
"It's not as simple as saying I have noise at my house and therefore there's a nuisance claim," Mr. Wong said. There must be proof, he said, that the noise is "substantially interfering with your use of your property."
"Obviously airports are allowed to exist and they're allowed to have planes flying to them," he said.
"We don't think there's a nuisance here as defined by California law."
Hoping it will spread
Whatever happens with the appeal, Mr. Ullman hopes others will follow his lead. He is part of a citizen's group called CalmTheSkies, which recently posted on its website information that others can use to file their own nuisance suits against the county.
CalmTheSkies.org now contains step-by-step instructions on how to file a small claims lawsuit against the county, complete with downloadable forms.
"County officials, despite almost 1,000 signatures on our petition and thousands of noise complaints, have done nothing to abate the noise from the flights operating at the San Carlos Airport," the website says.
"Unless the County is pushed financially, they will continue to ignore our requests. For this reason, just like they successfully did in the early 80's at SFO, we have started to initiate small claims actions against the County," the website says.
"Public nuisance" defined
In his small claims court filing, Adam Ullman says San Mateo County is violating state law by not doing more to control noisy plane flights, which the suit says are a public nuisance.
That law defines a "nuisance" in this way:
"Anything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway, is a nuisance." (California Civil Code, Section 3479.)
A public nuisance is defined as "one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal." (California Civil Code, Section 3480.)