In the first two months after the Twin Cities airport's new runway opened, neighbors' complaints about jet noise nearly tripled compared with the same period a year earlier — and they continue to pile up in January.
People living in Eagan, Apple Valley and Burnsville have borne the brunt of the overhead rumble, filing many of the approximately 9,000 complaints the Metropolitan Airports Commission has logged since Nov. 1. More than 5,550 of those gripes were specific to the new Runway 17/35.
And the din is certain to get worse.
Although the north-south runway at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was projected to handle 37 percent of all departures and 16.5 percent of arrivals, its actual traffic has been less than half what officials predicted. In December, for instance, just 8 percent of the arriving planes and 12 percent of those taking off used the new runway, which parallels Cedar Avenue.
The runway's opening does mean less noise for Minneapolis and inner-ring suburbs like Mendota Heights and Inver Grove Heights, but it's been a shock to communities with historically low noise levels.
Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland said the runway's opening has, literally, altered the landscape of her suburb.
"Life has changed," she said. "We know none of the homes here sit within the airport's (high-decibel areas that qualify for MAC-paid home soundproofing), but it sure feels that way. It's loud."
Apple Valley homeowner Mark Ochs said he realized what he was in for the day the planes started flying.
"I'm looking out my kitchen window now, and I can see the landing lights just above us. They are right on top of our house," Ochs said Monday night. "It's just been a nightmare."
Those who live under the flight paths have similar complaints, according to the MAC, with the frequency and location of overhead flights topping the list. But the south suburban air traffic noise is not as deafening as it is in Minneapolis because the cities are farther away from the runway and planes are at higher altitudes.
"They seem pretty low to me, though," said Sandy Flategraff, who is Ochs' neighbor. "You can really hear it in the house. And we just got new windows."
The Apple Valley resident said it's irritating because Minneapolis residents knew what they were getting when they moved next to the airport.
"We've lived here for more than 18 years," she said. "We never expected to hear airplane noise. It's been frustrating."
Despite the shock to residents, city and MAC officials say the volume and nature of the complaints largely have mirrored their expectations. And, they say, the calls have slowed since the runway opened Oct. 27.
"We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best," said Melissa Scovronski, who handles complaints for the MAC's aviation noise programs. The agency held some 50 community meetings before unveiling the runway.
But Hamann-Roland still fields calls from unhappy residents and said it would be easier to respond if the city had more formal standing with the MAC. She and the City Council have tried for months to secure a seat on the MAC's Noise Oversight Committee, which makes policy recommendations to the agency.
Hamann-Roland, along with other suburban leaders, will make her pitch to join the committee in early February. She said she believes that representation will be even more critical as warm weather nears. So do residents.
"This all happened after we were through being outside for the year," said Steve Ebersole, who lives near Ochs in the city's northern Briar Oaks subdivision. "I can't imagine what it will be like when we want to be out on our deck this summer."
Ebersole said he routinely files complaints with the MAC when the planes are flying — a pattern MAC officials are braced to see worsen.
"We haven't actually had as many calls as I expected, but April is the beginning of what we call the open-window season," Scovronski said.
In addition, use of the new runway is likely to pick up in the summer. The slow start is partly because it takes time for the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate the new runway into the overall system, said Chad Leqve, manager of the MAC's aviation noise program. Northwest Airlines' scaled-back operations after the Eagan-based carrier's 2005 bankruptcy filing also have contributed to the diminished use.
Leqve would not say if early forecasts for the runway's use were simply too high.
"And I'm hesitant at this point to give any type of prediction as to where total numbers will be," he said.
In the meantime, Leqve and his staff continue to listen to complaints and work with the FAA to try to make adjustments when possible.
For instance, he said, pilots on westbound departures weren't turning where they were supposed to 30 percent of the time when the runway first opened. The MAC talked with the FAA, which issued a new order in December to remedy the problem. Compliance is now at 98 percent.
Eagan's assistant city administrator, Dianne Miller, said the city is waiting to see if noise significantly worsens. Both she and staff in Burnsville field fewer calls, but say that's because most people are calling the MAC directly to file complaints.
Jim Skelly, Burnsville's spokesman, said he hopes residents attend a community meeting the MAC is holding today in his city.
"This is the opportunity for residents to have input," he said. "These types of meetings are how decisions are made."
Ebersole hopes the MAC hears his complaints. He and his neighbors would like pilots to deviate from the flight path slightly so the planes aren't so close overhead.
He also is unhappy with the MAC's noise monitor.
"It's in a hollow surrounded by trees and a lake on one side," he said.
"To get a true measurement, they should install a monitor on the water tower near our house. Right now, it just feels very set-up."
Meggen Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5260.
IF YOU GO
The Metropolitan Airports Commission is hosting a public-input meeting on airplane noise at 7 p.m. today at Burnsville High School, 200 Burnsville Parkway Wt.
2,789: Overall airport noise complaints for November and December 2004
8,152: Overall airport noise complaints for November and December 2005
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