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Rise in Aircraft Noise Sparks Appeal

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

Citizens associations and other groups representing communities near the Potomac River have been struggling for almost two years to reconcile with the Federal Aviation Administration over their concerns about airplane noise in their neighborhoods.

But last week, nine organizations including five citizens associations joined together and filed a petition for review before the U.S. Court of Appeals — the first step in what could become a lengthy litigation battle against the FAA. The Aug. 24 filing is a response to what many citizens say is an increasing problem with noise from airplanes coming in and out of Reagan National Airport.

Citizens Association of Georgetown president Bob vom Eigen said he has noticed within the past few months that planes no longer fly the route that the associations and aviation officials had agreed upon — directly over the Potomac River. Upon departure from the airport, for instance, they’re flying past the back side of the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School and Georgetown University, and over Hillandale and neighborhoods to the immediate west.

“Reagan National is routing planes more quickly and they’re actually crossing Georgetown, which is of course a historical landmark,” vom Eigen said. “The question is whether there shouldn’t be some concession made to that location.”

Discussions with the FAA about increased noise in and near Georgetown began in fall 2013. Hillandale Homeowners Association president Cynthia Howar, whose home falls squarely within the flight path that affects residents most directly, thinks the agency purposely stalled conversations so it could run out the clock on a comment period during which the affected parties could object to the administration’s procedures.

“It’s difficult to believe that there’s an agency that could do something like this to its own city,” Howar said. “We’re in a difficult situation.”

The deadline for that comment period was Aug. 24, and that’s the day the group filed the petition to review, which serves as a legal appeal of the federal agency’s decision, in the D.C. Circuit Court. Further filings including issues on appeal and a docketing statement could follow. Vom Eigen said the interested parties weren’t aware of that deadline until the Friday immediately before.

Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Ed Solomon has been at the center of discussions with the FAA since the fall of 2013, when he was approached to represent several of the affected neighborhoods. Solomon said the administration indicated it was testing new routes this summer, but didn’t mention that the new routes would cause issues in local communities.

Solomon’s commission passed a resolution Monday supporting the communities’ petition. Solomon said it’s a rarity for many groups to come together over a common issue in this way. The petitioners are the citizens associations of Burleith, Foxhall Community, Georgetown and Palisades; the Hillandale Homeowners Association; the Colony Hill Neighborhood Association; the Foggy Bottom Association; Georgetown University; and the Georgetown University Student Association.

“It’s remarkable that eight communities can get together and support a cause,” Solomon said.

During the negotiation process, the FAA assured D.C. residents that the flight path would have as little of an impact on them as possible. But when the path abruptly changed, citizens were not happy with officials’ dismissal of their concerns. The administration tried to argue that the planes’ modern engines would be less noisy than older engines, and that noise monitors hadn’t recorded a significant uptick in decibel levels since the routes changed.

“Those are points that obfuscate the real issue, which is that there’s more traffic going on over our neighborhoods and creating more noise,” Howar said.

A spokesperson for the FAA did not provide comment on the community groups’ issues on Tuesday.

Convincing the rest of the neighbors in the affected areas that the battle is worth fighting involves dismissing any lingering misconceptions about the source of the problem, Howar said. Some residents think there’s a curfew that prevents planes from flying overhead after a certain time or at all, Howar said, but there are no such restrictions. And as the airport’s traffic threatens to overtake that of Dulles International Airport in Virginia, the number of planes flying overhead will be higher than ever, according to media reports.

Hillandale Homeowners Association vice president Todd Daubert said none of the parties involved in the litigation are particularly keen on an extended legal battle, nor do they feel that one should have been necessary in the first place. But if the administration isn’t willing to listen to their demands, Daubert said, legal action will inevitably ensue.

“The FAA is supposed to serve the public interest. They’re supposed to be serving us,” Daubert said. “The fact that they’ve gotten into a situation where they’re arguing with us shows that they’ve failed in their mission.”

Georgetown University joined the fight against the aviation administration upon recognizing that its community shared concerns with its neighbors, according to spokesperson Ryan King.

“Georgetown shares in the concerns of our neighbors on the impact of increased air traffic, especially early in the morning and late at night,” King wrote in an email. “We hope the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will conduct a further review of the consequences this increased traffic is having on the noise levels in our community and the potential impact on our campus and neighborhood’s historic buildings.”

Howar said she wishes the group didn’t have to take legal action.

“My hope is that the FAA will take note of the deep concern of the communities and the negative impact that their actions have had and they’ll voluntarily step back,” Howar said. “Nobody wants to continue with the litigation.”

Despite the potential for a protracted battle, Howar hopes that by acting together the community organizations will be able to successfully challenge the bureaucracy of a federal organization.

“I think we have a very big fight. But I think there are enough people who are really angry,” Howar said. “This is destroying the peace and quiet of our neighborhoods, and it’s basically an environmental nuisance. We didn’t come to it. It’s coming to us.”

This article appears in the Sept. 2 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.