Appellate Court Affirms Denver Airport's Liability to Adams County for Noise Damages

MARCH 30, 2001

The city of Denver owes Adams County $5.3 million for aircraft noise violations during Denver International Airport's first year of operation, the Colorado Court of Appeals said Thursday. The decision affirmed a lower-court ruling.

As a result, Denver could be liable for at least $23 million in additional penalties to Adams County for serious noise violations in DIA's second through fifth years.

In 1999 Jefferson County District Judge Jane Tidball found that in the airport's first year planes caused eight serious violations of a noise pact that Denver had reached with Adams County before the airport was built. That agreement called for Denver to pay a $500,000 penalty to the county for every serious infringement of the pact, which established methods of measuring aircraft noise, especially near populated areas to the north, west and south of the airport.

When interest is added to the first-year bill, Denver owes Adams County $5.3 million, according to Tidball's decision.

Denver's appeal of that ruling claimed Adams County had not demonstrated that it suffered any damages from aircraft noise. Furthermore, the city said, noise penalties in its 13-year-old pact with the county are unenforceable. The appeals court rejected those arguments.

Jeri James, an Adams County resident who lives 3 miles north of the airport, was elated by the court's decision. "Cool! That's great," she said, when told details of the ruling. "This is a contract between Denver and Adams County, and Denver has no business trying to get out of it."

James has lived in the small residential enclave of Vantage Estates for 17 years, and aircraft noise has made it nearly impossible to sell her house. "It's embarrassing. Someone was out looking at the house, and this god-awfully loud plane went over our head," James said. "We just stared at each other. I thought, "Go ahead, say something.' But she didn't; she just left."

Denver's pact with Adams County "is replete with language identifying the parties' shared understanding of the critical importance of noise exposure levels and compliance with" those noise standards, the appeals court said in its 27-page opinion.

Marty Flaum, chairman of the Adams County Board of Commissioners, hailed Thursday's court ruling as a victory. It confirmed that when Denver and Adams County signed their agreement in 1988 to try to curb airport noise, "it meant something," Flaum said.

Mark Davis, an attorney who represents Adams County in the DIA noise case, said he hoped the appeals court ruling means Denver will "stop legal maneuvering to avoid its obligations to the people of Adams County."

"Obviously, we're disappointed in the ruling," said Denver Deputy City Attorney Helen Raabe. The city will consider whether to appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, she said.

If the appeals court decision stands, Denver also may have to pay penalties to Adams County for noise violations that occurred in DIA's second through fifth years.

Airport records show that planes violated the noise pact eight times in the second year, six times in the third year, 11 times in the fourth year and 20 times in DIA's fifth year of operation. Those 45 violations over four years could force Denver to pay more than $23 million in additional noise penalties.

If Denver pays the county for noise violations, Adams should consider using the money to buy out the homes of residents who are most affected by aircraft noise, Flaum said.

Source: Denver Post