Judge Rules Twin Cities Airport Reneged on Soundproofing Deal

Jan. 27 -- A Hennepin County district judge wants the parties in a fight about airport noise to come back next month with proposals to address the complaints.

The cities of Eagan, Minneapolis and Richfield won an early decision Thursday when Judge Stephen Aldrich ruled that the Metropolitan Airports Commission broke its promise to soundproof thousands of homes in those cities as part of an agreement to expand the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

In the lawsuit, the three cities and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority allege the MAC violated the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act by not completely soundproofing homes in areas where the noise level reached 60 to 64 decibels.

Aldrich ruled the MAC scaled back its 1996 noise-insulation plan for those homes, for which it agreed to spend $150 million to soundproof as a condition of the airport expansion. He denied a request by the defendants, MAC and Northwest Airlines, to dismiss the case.

The pretrial hearing, which began Friday, continues Feb. 6. The case is scheduled to go to trial in mid-February.

"There was a commitment made to provide this level of mitigation," said Tom Hedges, Eagan city administrator. "We feel very good about the outcome and the decision."

On Feb. 6, Aldrich will review proposals from the three cities and the airports commission for soundproofing mitigation, said John Putnam, attorney with the Denver-based firm Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, representing the cities. How many homes would qualify for full insulation remains a question.

"After many years, justice is finally being served," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "We should not have to spend thousands of dollars and go to years of meetings for a public body, like the airports commission, to make good on promises."

The MAC, owner and operator of the airport, fully soundproofs homes where the noise level is 65 decibels or higher. The MAC has fully insulated 7,690 homes with those qualifications. Mitigation generally included better doors, windows, insulation, ventilation systems and air conditioning.

The lawsuit alleges the MAC changed its insulation plan for homes with noise levels of 60 to 64 decibels. The commission spent only $48 million on air conditioning for some homes and asked homeowners to pitch in $20 million more for central-air units.

"The noise impacts are remarkably different, so it makes sense that the insulation program should also be different," said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the MAC. "We believe we have fulfilled our commitment to neighborhoods around the airport."

If the cities win the suit, it's unclear how many homes could be fully insulated. Early estimates from the cities predict the suit could affect more than 800 homes in Richfield, 492 homes in Eagan and more than 4,291 homes in Minneapolis, said city officials.

It likely would cost $45,000 per home for full insulation, Hogan said.

Homeowners in Minneapolis and Richfield also are suing the MAC in a class action lawsuit for soundproofing that residents say the MAC promised but never provided.

Rybak said he hopes Thursday's victory sends a message to the MAC to work with residents "and not ignore the needs of the people who they fly over every day."

"This is the first victory I can remember in which the airports commission's long record of arrogance against residents has been defeated," he said. "The lawsuit demonstrates ... that the airports commission has not made good on its promises."

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