Denver Set to Pay for Airport Noise After State Supreme Court Turns down Review

JANUARY 23, 2002

Mayor Wellington Webb said Denver will pay $5.3 million to Adams County and four of its cities today for noise violations during Denver International Airport's first year of operation.

But Webb added Tuesday that Denver needs relief from the 14-year-old noise pact it made with Adams County and its cities. "As an entity, we cannot continue to issue these payments. There is no bottomless pit," Webb said. If Denver has to pay for violations in the second through sixth years of DIA's existence, the city could face $33 million more in payments.

Webb said the city will deliver the $5.3 million check to Adams County today for the airport's first year, 1995 to 1996. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, financially strapped DIA has cut this year's budget by $25 million. But Webb said the $5.3 million had been kept in reserve by the airport.

The payment could be used to buy out Adams County homeowners who live close to the airport, or for noise-muffling technologies that could be applied to their homes.

"I would consider a buyout or soundproofing," said Harold Marr, a 15-year resident of the small Lake Estates subdivision in Adams County, just north of DIA. Marr said the noise problem has gotten better recently as DIA routed the noisiest jets away from his neighborhood or airlines simply retired the noisy planes. "But even the quiet ones, when they fly overhead it's pretty loud," Marr said, adding that for about three years, until the recent efforts to reroute the jets, "the noise was almost intolerable."

Webb announced Denver's action to pay the $5.3 million after the Colorado Supreme Court refused to reconsider a state appeals court decision that had upheld the validity of Denver's first-year aircraft noise debt to Adams and the cities of Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City, and Thornton.

The obligation for the noise payment stems from an agreement Denver signed with Adams County and the four cities in 1988. It established a computerized system for measuring aircraft noise at about 100 locations to the north, west and south of DIA. Denver was liable for a noise mitigation payment of $500,000 for every serious violation annually.

A Jefferson County judge ruled that DIA was responsible for eight serious noise violations in DIA's first year. With interest, Denver owed Adams and the four cities $5.3 million, Jefferson District Court Judge Jane Tidball said.

Mark Davis, an attorney for Adams and the cities, said in DIA's second through fifth years of operation the airport recorded 42 additional noise violations, which means Denver owes his clients $21 million more in mitigation payments.

DIA recently said the airport incurred 24 serious noise violations in its sixth year, which ended last Feb. 28. That could subject the airport to an additional $12 million in noise payments if the violations are not corrected this year.

Davis already has a second suit filed with Tidball to collect payments for DIA's second through fourth years.

Noise standards set by Denver, Adams, and the cities in 1988 were based on the best estimates at that time of the type of planes that would be using DIA, Webb said. "Obviously the estimates were off," Webb said. "We find 14 years later due to circumstances beyond Denver's control that the noise standards are impossible to meet." He said one solution for Denver would be to renegotiate the 1988 pact with Adams and the cities.

If the parties do not successfully renegotiate the pact, Denver needs to get help from the airlines and Federal Aviation Administration to keep the oldest, noisiest planes from flying over populated areas near DIA where the noise violations are occurring, Webb said.

The mayor said DIA also will explore the possibility of denying airlines the opportunity to use certain runways for their old, noisy jets if those flights are contributing to the noise violations. Such an action by DIA could get the airport in legal trouble with federal officials and the airlines, since recently modified planes meet federal noise standards.

Adams County commissioner Marty Flaum welcomed Denver's payment for the first-year violations and said he's willing to take another look at the agreement. Even though Adams is "in the driver's seat" on the noise issue with Denver, "regardless of where this goes, it's not good for anyone," Flaum said. "There will still be noise and millions of dollars in payments, and we all know where that will come from. It's not good for consumers."

Source: Denver Post