Decade-Long Noise Fight Ends with Judge's Order Limiting
Construction of New Homes Near New Zealand Airport


NOVEMBER 22, 1997
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND

A judge's order Thursday restricting construction of new homes near the Wellington (New Zealand) airport ends a decade-long battle between airline and airport officials and residents, according to an article in The Dominion (Features; General; page 19). The article describes the long fight, focusing on the leader who organized residents and led a successful battle, Maxine Harris.

The article says that Maxine Harris, a resident of Strathmore, first moved into her home in 1963. Five years later, the jet noise started. But what prompted her and her neighbors to form the Residents Airport Noise Action Group was the night-time revving-up of National Airways airplane engines in the 1980s. Harris said, "It was a high-pitched whining. It would wake you up and you wouldn't get back to sleep."

Each time Harris phoned the airport to complain, the article says, an airport official told her no one else had complained. But then, Harris said, she talked to a neighbor who said he had complained but was told that no one else had complained. The two neighbors responded by putting leaflets in other neighbors' mailboxes, asking them to call the airport if they were disturbed by the noise. According to Harris, the response from residents was overwhelming, and in 1986 the residents' group was formed to focus on two tasks: to stop night-time engine testing and to get the noise of the 737s reduced.

The article goes on to explain that the residents' group put on a determined front at its first meeting with the city council in 1986. "We said: It's a problem. Either you move all the houses, or you move the airport, or you reduce the noise at its source" Harris said. "Of course, our view was that the only logical thing was reducing the noise and we haven't changed that." The residents were successful in getting the city to pass its first engine-testing bylaw, which limited the times of testing of the National Airways Friendship fleet. However, the problem of the noisy Boeing 737s didn't go away.

Then, in 1987, Ansett Airlines entered the internal air service market, which in turn caused Air New Zealand to multiply its operation, the article says. Harris calls 1987 the year of the "big explosion." Residents, in response, proposed that all 737s be phased out by 1997. Within three months of the proposal, Ansett had replaced their fleet with quieter Whisper jets. The city council then drew up a proposed bylaw which would have required Air New Zealand to reduce its fleet by stages, the article explains. But whether under pressure from the airlines or under the waning interest of a new council that took office in 1989, the proposed bylaw never became law. Harris said, "After a fiery meeting, they passed a gutted bylaw. It set a finite date when the planes should be gone, but no phase-out."

The article goes on to say that in 1992, Air New Zealand announced that seven of its Boeing 737-200s would be hush-kitted by the next year, but said its fleet still would eventually be phased out for 737-300s. Residents then began a new line of argument. According to Harris, the hush-kitted planes were certified to meet international standards, but they only passed technically because of a standard that allows a trade-off, giving leeway if noise limits are exceeded in one of the measured areas. Harris admitted, "They were quieter. What was a very, very, VERY noisy aircraft became a very, very noisy aircraft." The fight went on, and even reached Parliament's select committees, but resolution of the issue was elusive.

Then, the council issued a proposed district plan, which residents objected to on several different grounds. In response to lawsuits filed against the plan, Environment Court Judge Shonagh Kenderdine in August ruled that the airport and airlines must abide by strict rules within an air noise boundary at which maximum noise levels will be set. The noise boundary is intended to shrink as the ability to control noise improves, the article reports. Other regulations in the ruling included a night curfew, and controls on ground-noise, engine-testing, and land-use. In addition, the Defense Ministry agreed to seek quieter aircraft within five years. However, the article says, Air New Zealand still was allowed to fly its hush-kitted Boeing 737 aircraft, apparently into the next century. Some "quiet" freight planes also were allowed to land during the night, prompting fears that regulations may erode.

This past Thursday's ruling was on the last remaining area of dispute -- setting construction limits on new residences built within the air noise boundary. The article says that Judge Kenderdine's ruling was made after two weeks of court sittings in an appeal filed by the residents' group against the city council's proposed district plan. The Board of Airline Representatives and Wellington Airport also appealed against details of the plan, the article notes. The judge had insisted that the parties continue to mediate outside the courtroom, which prompted a consent order agreed to by residents' groups. Still, the residents didn't get everything they wanted.

"We didn't win," Harris said. "We didn't agree. We withdrew our appeal against having the 737s phased out. We withdrew on the understanding that the court may not have the ability to order Air New Zealand to change its aircraft. If we'd gone ahead, it might have taken months more and we'd have lost anyway." She said all parties know that the 737-200s have to go eventually, and that the new generation of jets will be quieter. The group's backdown, she said, was in response to reality.

Still, Harris said, the fact that the residents fought so long and hard resulted in something better than the council had decided. If the group hadn't appealed the noise environment, it would be far worse than it is now, she said.

The article goes on to say that included with the new rules is the establishment of a noise management plan group, which will control and monitor the new rules, and which will include ordinary residents. But Harris, who was the key figure in the fight for 11 years, said she's getting out of the fight after the transition period. "I've had enough," she said. "It's time for younger people now."

Harris went on to say that her stamina over the 11 years was a result of her stubbornness. She said, "I'm very stubborn. A Scorpio. I do not like seeing little guys pushed around by bullies. Quite frankly, I can be a bitch." She said she is proud that the airport and airlines came to take her seriously over the years. "We didn't always agree, but I gained their respect," she said.