Saturday, May 30, 2009

Court rules Long Beach Airport EIR is valid, clearing way for terminal expansion

LONG BEACH - An Orange County appeals court has ruled that an environmental impact study of planned improvements at Long Beach Airport was adequate, clearing the way for long-awaited terminal improvements to begin.

The 4th District California Court of Appeals issued its opinion late Thursday, one month after hearing oral arguments in the case, ruling in favor of the city of Long Beach and against the Long Beach Parent-Teacher Association.

The PTA alleged in its lawsuit that an environmental impact report that had examined the effects of expanding the airport terminal and building a parking garage there didn't take into account the potential noise impact of additional flights on area schools that might result from the expansion.

Writing for the three-justice appeals court, Justice William Rylaarsdam says in the ruling that it isn't the airport's size that restricts the number of flights at the airport, but Long Beach's strict noise ordinance.

Under a 1995 federal court settlement, the airport is limited to 41 commercial flights and 25 commuter flights daily.

"What plaintiff's (PTA's) argument misses is that the increase in the airport terminal's size, including the added gates and aircraft parking spaces, is intended to alleviate the currently overcrowded conditions resulting from the increased flight activity permitted under the city's existing noise ordinance," Rylaarsdam says.

Initially, the PTA had joined LongBeach Unified School District in the lawsuit in 2006, but after an Orange County judge ruled in the city's favor in early 2008, only the PTA appealed the ruling.

The lawsuit has been one of the main obstacles to the airport project, in turn creating tension between city officials and JetBlue Airways, the airport's largest airline.

In April, JetBlue CEO Dave Barger publicly said that the airline might consider leaving Long Beach because of the lack of progress on terminal improvements.

Since then, JetBlue has backed off of this stance and reaffirmed its commitment to Long Beach.

Airport officials also recently unveiled a phased plan to begin terminal improvements and construction of part of the parking garage.

While the plan is less ambitious than initially proposed, officials say it will be affordable and can be done mostly with existing revenues.

Legal `battle is over'

While the PTA could ask the California Supreme Court to review the case, City Attorney Bob Shannon said he thinks that is unlikely.

"I don't see any substantial likelihood that the Supreme Court would review this case," Shannon said today.

"For the legal aspects of it, practically speaking, the battle is over."

Attorney John Eastman, who represents the PTA, said Friday that he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the ruling.

Eastman said he hadn't talked with the PTA about the court's decision yet and couldn't comment on whether any further legal steps would be taken.

Eastman noted that the city has contended any change to the noise ordinance would require a new environmental study and said "we will hold them to that."

However, Eastman said the potential noise impact should be examined before the city spends millions of dollars on a project that he maintains could eventually lead to more flights.

New parking in phases

Under the airport plan, a new parking garage will be built in two phases, initially creating 1,900 parking spaces and then adding 3,200 more after 2016, if needed.

Airport officials expect to break ground on the garage by the end of the year.

The parking project will be funded through 30-year bonds that will have an annual debt service of $4.2 million, while the garage's Phase One is expected to bring in $4.9 million in additional revenue.

At the same time, the airport will close its off-site Parking Lot D, which it currently rents.

The first phase of the terminal improvements should begin by the end of 2010 and will focus on improving common areas such as restrooms, concession areas, passenger holding rooms and security checkpoints, airport officials say.

That work will cost $35 million and will be funded mostly through passenger facility charges paid by the airlines, officials say.

(Press Telegram)

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