Court Overturns Aircraft Noise Small Claims Lawsuit Against San Mateo County

After enduring aircraft flying over his home at all hours, Adam Ullman, a resident of unincorporated Menlo Park, California, filed a Smalls Claims action against the County of San Mateo, the owner of the nearby San Carlos Airport for creating a public nuisance by allowing Surf Air to use the airport. Although initially successful, last Friday, August 26, 2016, the County’s appeal of the smalls claims judgment was thrown out. As Barbara Wood reported in The Almanac, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John L. Grandsaert, in overturning the Small Claims court decision stated that “it strikes me that what you’re seeking” is “an end to this noise. . . You want that stopped. That’s what’s called injunctive relief. . . I’m with you in terms of your concerns and your presentation. I’m really not with you so far as why this case should be in small claims court.” http://bit.ly/2bVA6dK

The problem with that finding? It would be impossible for Mr. Ullman to get an injunction to stop the noise created by the Surf Air aircraft. There is a long history of airports owners and communities surrounding airports being unable to regulate noisy aircraft. First, airport owners are bound by their grant assurances – that is, the agreement they sign with the FAA in order to get federal money – to keep the airport open for all “aeronautical users.” This includes noisy aircraft.  http://bit.ly/2bJvuq6 Moreover, federal law prevents airport owners and operators from prohibiting certain types of aircraft from a particular airport. Curfews on aircraft traffic at airports are also prohibited by federal law See 49 USC 47524. So even if the County of San Mateo wanted to stop Surf Air from using San Carlos Airport, it could not without inviting the FAA to begin a legal action against it.

Second, the communities surrounding the airport cannot stop noisy aircraft either. Several communities have tried to enact ordinances that would restrict noisy aircraft from flying over their neighborhoods. Federal law, however, says that they cannot do that. Courts have consistently said that aircraft in flight are the sole responsibility of the FAA and if the FAA says they can be there, then there is little that a state or local government can do to stop it.  See, for example, the seminal case in this regard, City of Burbank v. Lockheed Terminal, 411 U.S. 624 (1973). So even if the County of San Mateo (or Atherton or Menlo Park) wanted to enact ordinances limiting the aircraft noise above their residents, that, too, would invite a legal action from the FAA.

In the end, the Judge is right: the issue is that Mr. Ullman – and millions of other Americans – want the noise stopped. But the reality is that filing for an injunction will not work because federal will not permit it

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6 Responses to Court Overturns Aircraft Noise Small Claims Lawsuit Against San Mateo County

  1. R walker says:

    Please explain the curfew at Orange County airport?

    • Steven M. Taber says:

      Curfew at John Wayne Airport (Orange County, California) was in place before the law was passed prohibiting curfews. After much wrangling, Congress agreed to “grandfather” John Wayne Airport’s curfew. See 49 USC 47524(d).

  2. Steve, where does Inverse condemnation stand these days, Len

    • Steven M. Taber says:

      Inverse condemnation is still a viable cause of action, but very difficult to get. In essence, the aircraft noise has to be excessive (i.e., over 75 – 80 DNL) in order for a court to consider inverse condemnation. The “taking” of an avigation easement without compensation has not really been an issue that the courts have been willing to address.

  3. Thanks. Where do the DNL values come from. Is it simply case law

    • Steven M. Taber says:

      It is a combination of FAA guidance, regulations, and statutes. It was decided back in the 1970’s to use DNL as the metric and the FAA and the EPA agreed then that 65 DNL was about the level that noise became “significant.” The FAA took that and ran with it and has beating that dead horse ever since.

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