Regulation of Noisy Airports in California

Regulations issued by California's Department of Transportation provide two methods by which the state can deal with noisy airports. First, any county may declare an airport within its boundaries to have a noise problem. Once an airport is designated as a "problem airport," aircraft noise measurements are regularly reviewed by the state. Second, all airports in the state must obtain a permit to operate from the state. If aircraft flights to and from the airport exceed noise levels set by the state, the airport must obtain a variance and submit a plan for complying with the noise standard. The state may revoke an airport's operating permit if the airport fails to comply with noise regulations.

The state's aircraft noise regulations are contained in California Code of Regulations, Title 21, sections 5000 - 5090. These regulations implement Public Utilities Code, Division 9, Part 1, Chapter 4 (section 21601 et seq.).

Airport Noise Standard

The state's standard for the acceptable level of aircraft noise for persons living in the vicinity of airports is a community noise equivalent level of 65 decibels. According to the regulations: "This level has been chosen for reasonable persons residing in urban residential areas where houses are of typical California construction and may have windows partially open. It has been selected with reference to speech, sleep, and community reaction."

Areas that receive aircraft noise at or above this level and which include certain "incompatible" land uses are called "noise impact areas." Incompatible land uses include:

Residences, unless the airport proprietor has acquired an avigation easement, owns the residences, or has made a genuine effort to acoustically treat residences exposed to an exterior CNEL less than 80 dB (or 75 dB if the residence has a backyard, patio, or balcony);

Schools that do not have soundproofing to ensure an interior CNEL of 45 dB or less due to aircraft noise, or for which the airport proprietor has not acquired an avigation easement;

Hospitals and convalescent homes that do not have soundproofing to ensure an interior CNEL of 45 dB or less due to aircraft noise, or for which the airport proprietor has not acquired an avigation easement;

Places of worship that do not have soundproofing to ensure an interior CNEL of 45 dB or less due to aircraft noise, or for which the airport proprietor has not acquired an avigation easement.

If airport operations produce "noise impact areas," the proprietor must apply for a variance from the State Department of Transportation.

The regulations expressly state that the state does not intend to prevent an airport proprietor from setting more stringent standards.


The policy underlying variances is that the airport proprietor is required to develop and implement a program to reduce the airport's noise impact area "to an acceptable degree in an orderly manner over a reasonable period of time."

The airport's application for a variance must state the date by which the proprietor expects to comply with the state's airport noise standard, as well as a schedule of incremental reductions in noise.

The Department of Transportation may grant a variance if to do so is in the public interest, taking into consideration the following:

The economic and technological feasibility of complying with the noise standard;

The noise impact that would occur if the variance is granted;

The value to the public of the services for which the variance is sought; and

Whether the airport proprietor is taking good faith measures to the best of its ability to achieve the airport noise standard.

The department will hold a public hearing on the application for a variance if requested by a person residing or owning property in the airport's noise impact area or by a government agency with jurisdiction over the noise impact area, or if the department believes a public hearing is desirable. Documents from a hearing for a variance for Van Nuys Airport (commenced September 13, 1999) are posted at

Any person may obtain information on pending requests for variances at any time. (Request information from California Department of Transportation, Aeronautics Program, P.O. Box 942874, Sacramento 94274-0001, telephone 916.654.4959.)

When granting a variance, the department may impose reasonable conditions to achieve the purposes of its noise regulations. A variance is good for three years. If the airport is not able to comply with the state's noise standard within that time, it must apply for a further variance.

Problem Airports

A county may declare any airport within its boundaries as a "noise problem airport" by adopting a resolution and notifying the Department of Transportation. Before enacting such a declaration, the county must:

Review relevant information, including (but not limited to) the record of complaints made and litigation filed by residents near the airport;

Investigate the possible existence of a noise impact area;

Give consideration to the recommendations of its Airport Land Use Commission.

A county's declaration of a "noise problem airport" is reviewable by the Department of Transportation at the request of anyone residing or owning property within the noise impact area or a government agency with jurisdiction over the area. Such review is limited to the question of whether the county's declaration was based on substantial evidence.

A county that has declared an airport an "problem airport" is responsible for (1) making sure that the airport establishes a state-approved noise monitoring program to validate the boundaries of the noise impact area and (2) reviewing and auditing the monitoring data. The county submits a quarterly report to the Department of Transportation, which assesses progress in reducing the noise impact area.