Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Noise Fuels Lawsuit

March 18, 2005
The city of Eagan has aligned with Minneapolis to sue the Metropolitan Airports Commission over its scaled-back noise insulation plan for homes that sit under flight paths, city leaders said Thursday.
The city of Eagan has aligned with Minneapolis to sue the Metropolitan Airports Commission over its scaled-back noise insulation plan for homes that sit under flight paths, city leaders said Thursday.

Officials want the commission to pay to buffer residents from the increasing racket that accompanies expansion and stepped-up airline traffic at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

But under the MAC's current noise mitigation proposal, almost none of the nearly 500 Eagan homes promised extensive soundproofing will get it, city officials said.

The airport's plan to open a new North-South runway in late October with increased flights over Eagan has municipal officials further on edge.

The City Council this week unanimously voted to join the Minneapolis lawsuit which was announced in November but has not yet been filed and to send letters to Minnesota's congressional delegation asking for help.

"This legal action comes as much out of frustration as anything," Eagan Mayor Pat Geagan said. "Here is a major government agency that made an agreement and now they are not holding to it. We relied on their promises."

Since 1992, the MAC has spent $223 million to soundproof 7,690 homes in areas where the noise level called DNL, or Day-Night Average Sound Level is 65 or greater. That mitigation generally included ramped-up doors, windows, insulation, ventilation systems and air conditioning.

But officials in both cities contend that during airport expansion discussions in 1996, the MAC, which owns and operates the airport, promised the same comprehensive mitigation for more than 3,600 other homes near the airport.

It is the protection for those homes located in areas with DNL levels in the 60-64 range that is now at issue.

Instead of the full noise mitigation, the affected homeowners would be eligible only for central air conditioning if they don't have it and would have to pay between 10 and 50 percent of its cost, depending on the area's noise level.

City officials ile say the MAC initially committed to spending $150 million on this round of soundproofing, it has since whittled the expenditure down to $47.5 million.

"It's been one broken promise after another and will continue to be as air traffic spreads out over Eagan, Mendota Heights, Bloomington and St. Paul," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the MAC, denied the commission reneged on any past promises with its current program, which he called "reasonable and generous."

"In 1996, the wording was vague, quite frankly," Hogan said. "Nowhere did it detail that there would be the same level of insulation for a 60 (DNL home) as there would be for a 65 (DNL home)."

Rybak dismissed that as "baloney" and said the MAC made verbal as well as written promises and touted the initial proposal in press releases and on its Web site.

But Hogan said the MAC's current proposal goes further than what other airports across the country are doing with noise insulation particularly for residents living in the lower DNL-level areas.

"The commission wrestled with what the program should look like, and the air-conditioning package is fair and science-based," he said. "If residents have central air, they can shut their windows in summer and keep interior noise levels to federal standards."

But in Eagan, nearly 80 percent of the homes already have air conditioning, so any help will be minimal, Geagan pointed out.

"With Eagan being so close to the airport, I'm sure other issues will come up. How do we trust the MAC in the future?" he asked.

The airports commission submitted its sound mitigation proposal and a map outlining noise levels to the Federal Aviation Administration in November. The FAA has approved the map but has not yet made a decision on the overall proposal.

It is likely that Minneapolis and Eagan will wait until the FAA issues its decision before filing the lawsuit.

"We're committed to suing," Rybak said. "We hired the best law firm in the country on airport litigation, and are now just following their advice."

The city has retained the Denver law firm of Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell.

In addition, Rybak and Geagan are working to persuade Bloomington, Richfield and Mendota Heights to join in bringing the dispute to court.

"(With the new runway), these cities are only really beginning to understand what they are about to face," Rybak said.