Denver Must Pay County Four Million for Airport Noise

OCTOBER 30, 1999

A judge ruled yesterday that Denver must give Adams County $4 million because Denver International Airport (DIA) shattered noise levels agreed upon before the airport opened. The payment, which will go to communities most affected by noise, covers eight violations of noise levels from the time the airport opened in February 1995 to February 1996.

The ruling stemmed from a four-day trial in August. The case was heard in Jefferson County to ensure impartiality. Adams County had sought $6 million for 12 violations, but District Court Judge Jane Tidball found eight violations.

Seven of the violations occurred in the "footprint" area agreed to by Denver and the county before DIA opened. They were recorded on noise-monitoring systems within a 100 square mile grid that includes neighborhoods in Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City, and Thornton. The eighth occurred within a more immediate area surrounding the airport.

The noise standards are based on annual daily averages of sound levels generated by DIA flight operations and are monitored at several sites surrounding the airport. (See Denver International Airport Noise Limits Set by Computer Model.)

In Friday's ruling Judge Tidball termed the lawsuit a "simple case" despite "the myriad of arguments raised by the parties." "It is undisputed that operations at DIA resulted in noise violations within weeks of the opening of DIA and that noise violations have continued, at least through 1998," according to Tidball's findings.

Adams County Commissioner Marty Flaum said the county, buoyed by its victory Friday, will review data from subsequent years for continued violations. If violations are found for subsequent years, the county may take Denver back to court, Flaum said.

"Maybe now, arrogant Denver will sit down with Adams County and see if we can work this out," he said. "Who knows, if Denver had been willing to meet with us when these violations were brought to their attention, there might have been a different outcome."

Flaum and Commissioner Elaine Valente said they believe solutions can be found without simply shifting the jet noise to another community. If not, Valente said, Adams County will pursue more legal action. "It may be a drop in the bucket of the big picture of what it takes to run the airport. But I would think they would not view that as insignificant," she said. "It's going to be ongoing."

The noise levels were part of an agreement between Denver and Adams County. That agreement was used to sell Adams County voters on allowing Denver to annex more than 40 square miles of county land for DIA. Adams County and Denver negotiated the agreement to hold Denver accountable for noise levels at DIA in order to prevent the kind of noise problems Stapleton International Airport caused for surrounding neighborhoods. The agreement, forged before the airport opened in 1995, requires Denver to change operations at the airport or pay $500,000 for each violation. The agreement says mitigation payments are payable to Adams County or to cities within the county affected by specific violations.

The $4 million payment will go toward buying better sound proofing for homes, buying out homeowners, and other measures to reduce the noise problem in Adams County, Flaum said. In the first year of DIA's operation, residents in Aurora were most affected by the noise, he said. Residents in Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City and Thornton all have complained about airport noise, Flaum said.

Denver City Attorney Dan Muse called the decision absurd and said it's likely the city will appeal. "Even if you assume there were technical violations, there was nobody harmed by it," he said. Muse said five of the violations occurred in areas where there already is more noise than that added by DIA jets, just east of Interstate 25 in Northglenn and right off Buckley Air National Guard Base's two fighter-jet runways.

James Spensley, a lawyer who was the new airport director at the launch of the DIA project in the mid-1980s, said the noise limits were based on DIA's original six-runway layout. Six runways would spread flight patterns, reducing the frequency of flights over any given point and lowering average noise levels. However, the sixth runway was eliminated to hold down costs, and Adams County had lobbied against Denver's plans to build it.

Denver officials feel it is unfair to hold them to a standard based on one design after the design changed. "The intergovernmental agreement very fundamentally was based on six runways," Spensley said. "To have Denver responsible for violating noise rules that were developed for six runways is absurd. To apply that standard to five runways doesn't make sense."

Helen Raabe, a DIA attorney, said the city was pleased the judge at least reduced the amount Adams County originally sought to $4 million. At this point, nearly five years into the operation of DIA, it could be difficult to change how the airport is operated or where the planes fly, several officials said.

The Federal Aviation Administration dictates where and how the airport operates, and the FAA isn't affected by the ruling. If DIA and the FAA try to change flight paths to reduce Adams County noise, they could create new problems. Already, the town of Elizabeth in Elbert County has suffered more problems after the first year of operations when flight patterns were shifted in an attempt to address Adams County's complaints. Mike Boyd, a Golden-based airport consultant, said the ruling shows that much of what politicians sold to voters about the need for DIA was inflated. The driving force behind DIA was pure economic development, he said. "They have to pay . . . and they will keep violating" the standards, Boyd said. "Any intelligent person knew there were going to violations."

Source: The Denver Post and Denver Rocky Mountain News