Judge Urges All Sides in Minneapolis Airport Noise Case to Settle Dispute

Arguments in three cities' airport noise lawsuit against the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) ended Wednesday with an urging from Hennepin County District Judge Stephen Aldrich for a negotiated settlement rather than a ruling from him.

The judge sharply questioned lawyers during more than three hours of final arguments on a sometimes mind-twisting array of topics from the science of measuring noise to whether the new Airbus A380 airliner can land at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Although the five-day trial ended a month ago, Aldrich took additional written arguments from the parties. Minneapolis, Richfield and Eagan filed the suit in 2005 against the MAC, which runs the airport. Northwest Airlines intervened on behalf of the commission.

Before the trial, Aldrich decided that the MAC broke a commitment to provide full soundproofing to thousands of homes in violation of its own noise-abatement standards. He has yet to determine what the remedy should be for breaking the commitment, but it is likely to cost millions.

The trial focused on a second contention by the cities: that the MAC violated the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act by disrupting the natural resource of "quietude."

Aldrich gave no indication of when he would rule, but he strongly noted in his closing soliloquy that he would prefer to be taken out of the equation. "It is the silliest thing in the world, in my judgment, to ask a judge to manage an airport," he said, adding that a worse scenario would be for the Legislature to insert itself - another possibility.

"There's nothing good about being here except for the fact you have a bunch of disappointed people who may have a remedy," Aldrich said.

He suggested that the sides settle the case without him, which they have been unable to do so far. "Who's that guy who settled Northern Ireland?" Aldrich asked, referring to former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine. "We may need someone of that skill."

In his hourlong final argument, John Putnam, a Denver lawyer hired by Minneapolis, said a violation of the Environmental Rights Act is "any conduct which materially adversely" affects quietude. He said "severe and recurrent aircraft noise events" fill the requirement.

MAC lawyer Thaddeus Lightfoot argued there is no claim under the act, because the level of airport noise has declined in recent years.

Aldrich said, "So as long as they're tinkering on the edges of improving things, [the act] doesn't help us get a cleaner environment?"

Lightfoot said he was correct.

Aldrich also asked Lightfoot about the "noise footprint" of the A380, which made its first landings in North America this week. After the court session, MAC Deputy Executive Director Nigel Finney said the runways at Minneapolis-St. Paul are long enough to bring in an A380. It has a wingspan longer than a football field and can seat 555.

The suit affects 492 homes in Eagan, 845 in Richfield and 4,291 in Minneapolis, all in a zone where average noise is between 60 and 64 decibels. More than 7,800 homes subject to noise of 65 decibels and higher have already been fully insulated by the MAC.

Full soundproofing costs about $45,000 per home and includes wall insulation, new windows and doors, roof baffles, furnaces, ductwork and air-conditioning, all designed to muffle jet noise for those living under flight paths.

The suit is separate from a parallel class-action suit filed by homeowners against the MAC.

Minneapolis alone has spent more than $1 million on the case.

Rochelle Olson - 612-673-1747