Idaho Falls Housing Not Airport Noise 'Compatible'

Mike Humberd wants to avoid future complaints, but there is little he can do to stop the residential growth.

Idaho Falls Airport Director Mike Humberd doesn't know who will buy homes in the Heritage Hills subdivision, a mile northeast of his main runway. Or who will rent new apartments less than a mile to the southwest.

He does know what they will hear:

Planes. Lots of them - from military crafts to single-engine Cessnas, taking off and landing 100 to 200 feet above their homes at all hours.

Humberd also knows the noise will cause problems, which is why he would rather not see Heritage Hills, apartments or any other housing built nearby, even though they technically mesh with the airport's master plan.

"We need to put something in there compatible with the noise," Humberd said.

But unless the city buys up land around the airport, there's little he or other officials can do about the encroaching housing. And that's not likely to happen.

"If it comes down to the choice between spending money on repairing my runway and buying land across the river, I'm going to spend it on the runway," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration shares Humberd's concerns. An Aug. 31 letter from FAA engineer Sandra Simmons laid it out: "We discourage residential development in and around the airport environs."

Preventing the development she wrote, "would demonstrate a serious commitment on the part of the city of Idaho Falls as both a neighbor and beneficiary of the airport."

The United States has scores of cities with airports hemmed in by housing.

Humberd pointed to John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach, Calif., a popular alternative to Los Angeles International for commuters.

John Wayne Airport started as a private airstrip in the 1920s. But by the 1980s, there had been enough complaints about noise from nearby homeowners that the airport adjusted takeoffs so planes fly nearly straight up to 2,000 feet and then level out, giving passengers' stomachs a lesson in G-force physics.

Humberd worries that 20 years from now, Idaho Falls could be in the same situation if city officials don't carefully address the planning issues surrounding the airport.

To him, it's an issue of pay now or pay later.

"Airports have spent billions of dollars to insulate homes, schools and you name it," he said.

But city planning director Renee Magee said that short of buying easements, the city's options are limited. If the City Council had refused to annex the land for Heritage Hills, for example, developers would have simply built on the same ground, in unincorporated Bonneville County where the city has no say.

There already are city and county subdivisions in the flight path, but they're further from the airport, so the noise isn't deafening.

"It worried me when we first moved here, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be," said Stephanie Gifford, who has lived in the subdivision north of Heritage Hills for 20 years.

"Sometimes certain aircraft come in lower, and you think, 'What the heck?'"

The jets flying into Idaho Falls are a lot quieter than they used to be. They're regional planes, which aren't as noisy as the 737s that landed when Delta and American flew into Idaho Falls. And even on bigger jets, engine noise has been tamed somewhat with new technologies.

Still, Humberd said, the amount of air traffic is only going to increase as Idaho Falls grows. It's something city leaders are going to have to weigh as more development is proposed.

The airport is a huge economic force in the community, generating millions of dollars.

"We're trying to protect the ability to do business the way we do it today and protect developers, too," he said.

Did you know?

Developers have proposed building two separate housing projects within a mile of the Idaho Falls Regional Airport. Here are some details:

- The city of Idaho Falls has OK'd the first phase of the Pacific Communities' apartment complex on Old Butte Road.

- The city is getting ready to approve the final plan for the 145-acre Heritage Hills subdivision, off East River Road.

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