In two more years, pilots landing on a new, north-south runway at Dulles International Airport will fly directly over Chantilly's Pleasant Valley community to do so.
THE FEDERAL Aviation Administration (FAA) and Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) say the noise shouldn't adversely affect residents there because, theoretically, they're outside the acceptable 65-decibel limit.
But the residents have serious doubts. And people discussing these runways at an outdoor meeting Tuesday night in that community were interrupted several times by planes so noisy that their words couldn't be heard.
"The airport says it won't exceed the 65-decibel average, but we want to make sure," said Cynthia Shang, president of the Pleasant Valley Neighborhood Connection, the community's civic association. "Scott Miller — an engineer and Pleasant Valley resident — has already registered the existing decibel level at a 90-decibel peak. Right now, there are times when the planes go over and the houses shake."
This community of 541 homes is just three miles from the airport and is the neighborhood closest to it, so residents there are understandably concerned about the noise. And they worry that the new runway will exacerbate things further, so they want a noise monitor installed before that runway's completed.
It would provide a baseline of exactly what the community's noise exposure is currently. And it would verify that its exposure remains below the allowable limit in the future.
But here's the kicker: No matter what promises aviation officials make to this Chantilly neighborhood, there's no guarantee that they'll be kept. And even if an agreeable arrangement is worked out about the overhead flights, there's nothing to prevent it from being changed and broken in the future.
"MWAA is controlled by local appointees, and we have a good relationship with [it]," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey at Tuesday's meeting. "[But] we're not the regulatory agent for the federal government. So we [can only] offer our comments and constructive criticism."
Dulles currently has three runways — two going north-south and one going east-west. A new, north-south runway, parallel to the other two, has already been approved and is under construction. It should be operational in late 2008. A second east-west runway is expected to be operational by about 2018. Then the airport will have five runways total.
The new, north-south runway will be 9,400 feet long and just 2.9 miles from the closest house in Pleasant Valley, on Elk Run Road. All aircraft arrivals on this runway will fly just 800 feet above homes in this community — going from one end to the other on a path directly over Silas Hutchinson Road.
"So we want a noise monitor installed [nearby] as a part of the project," said Shang. "That's the only way to make an accurate determination of the noise our community will suffer from. The FAA has guidelines and restrictions, and we want to make sure they abide by them."
At Tuesday night's meeting, Pleasant Valley residents looked at maps and diagrams of the new runways. They also listened to and asked questions of Bill Lebegern with MWAA; Frey; Noel Kaplan, senior environmental planner with Fairfax County's Department of Planning and Zoning; Matt Meyers, an ecologist with the county's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES); and Carol Hawn, Sully District representative on the Airport Advisory Committee.
"In 2002, we proposed the fourth and fifth runways, and the federal government did the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] for them," said Lebegern. "In bad weather, the ability to get three independent runways operating will be very important."
He said the new runways would have wetlands, stream and noise impacts, "but Dulles, with its land buffer, is reasonably well-positioned." Then he showed a diagram of current aircraft paths and runway use.
"The arrivals will always go over this neighborhood — correct?" asked Miller. "Yes," replied Lebegern. "We're showing less than 1/2 a percent of the total arrivals with all five runways in 2018."
With the fourth runway in 2008, there are supposed to be no nighttime arrivals over Pleasant Valley. But 2 percent of the total daytime arrivals — and departures — at the airport are expected to cross over that community for an entire decade until the fifth runway is built and functioning.
Lebegern said air traffic controllers "like the capacity they can have on the north-south runways when wind conditions permit. The goal is to have triple, independent operations. Will they come over your neighborhood? Yes, if it's a foggy day."
He also admitted that, in the future, "how they operate [that runway] might change. The next group of air traffic controllers might do something different."
"And after that?" asked Pleasant Valley resident Dave Hutzenbiler. But Lebegern had no answer.
And despite Lebegern's claim that there are no plans to use the new, north-south runway at night, residents were skeptical. That's because a prior promise has already been broken and continues to be.
Tuesday night, Lebegern said that, "In the early '90s, the counties, airport, controllers and pilots agreed to not do nighttime takeoffs from the easternmost [north-south] runway."
"But they are," said Miller. And according to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 150 Airport Noise Compatibility Planning report issued in March 1993 — which is the most current one — 33.4 percent of all nighttime departures (between 10 p.m.-7 a.m.) are being made from that easternmost runway.
Airport operations (takeoffs and landings) at Dulles have significantly increased since then. And in that same document, it's noted that, if that runway is used at night, Pleasant Valley residents are estimated to be exposed to decibel levels greater than 65.
And that's just what's happening, said Miller. "We're already impacted," he said. "They knew they needed to use the western runway at night for takeoffs. But they're not abiding by it."
Currently, these nighttime departures fly southbound, directly over the homes in Pleasant Valley. And some homeowners at the meeting complained about the pilots making early turns over their houses, instead of flying on a path that wouldn't be so loud and intrusive.
"At nighttime, they take off from 19L — the easternmost runway — bank to the west and come over us," explained Miller. "If they used the runway closest to us — which, in 1993, they said they'd do — the airplanes wouldn't have time to turn and come over our neighborhood."
"The Part 150 study has pilots taking off straight," said Miller. "But it's not a legally binding document and they can do what they want."
Lebegern couldn't deny it. "The FAA backed off of the Part 150 study, saying you need to update it every five years, so it's lapsed and they've given themselves an out," he said. "It's constant negotiation. It might require a sit-down with controllers and, possibly, a call to a congressman."
"So what is the 10 years we've been given [of just 2 percent of the flights going over Pleasant Valley] worth?" asked Hutzenbiler. Answered Lebegern: "This is their best estimate of how they're going to operate the airport."
He said airport officials decided to build the north-south runway before the east-west one because "there's a little bit of capacity gain" that way. But, he added, "If we have bad winters, by 2011 we'll be hustling to get that other one open."
Noel Kaplan coordinates environmental reviews of federally funded projects for Fairfax County, and he got the EIS for the new runways. "Because a project this size would have significant environmental impacts, we solicited the help of DPWES for its input," he said. "We focused on the noise and water issues."
"We were presented with the airport's best guess as to what the operations would be like when the runways opened," said Kaplan. "We asked, 'But shouldn't other possible changes be taken into effect?' and they didn't [pay much attention]. So the scenario proposed may change."
Unlike Reagan National Airport, he said, "There's no noise-abatement requirement" for Dulles Airport in this EIS. "So we'll have to see how it all pans out and, if there are problems, see if the airport will address them."
Over the years, he said, aircraft have gotten quieter — as a plane flying overhead drowned out his words and the residents laughed. Said Kaplan: "When they build new runways, there's bound to be a change in the noise-contour lines."
Ecologist Matt Meyers, with the county DPWES, is project manager for the Cub Run and Bull Run Watershed Planning effort. He's concerned with how stormwater runoff from land affects flooding and the water quality of streams, and he was also involved with the runways' EIS.
"There are 700 acres of wetlands on the airport [property], and 140 acres will be impacted [initially] and more later," he said. "There are 10 miles of stream impacts and five miles of impacts at the beginning of Cub Run. And the Airports Authority will be responsible for a Cub Run monitoring plan to insure the water quality downstream of the fifth runway."
Hutzenbiler said if the floodplain increased another foot, his home could have potential problems, but Meyers said the MWAA "made a commitment" that the new runways won't increase the floodplain's water level.
Carol Hawn told residents that the 19-member Airport Advisory Committee advises the Board of Supervisors on airport issues. "We're putting together a report for the Supervisors in October about concerns citizens have raised," she said.
Supervisor Frey noted Dulles Airport's huge importance to Fairfax County's economy. "Everytime another nonstop flight is added here, jobs increase," he said. "But it's sort of a double-edged sword. You can't have an airport without having some impacts, and the airport has been diligent in mitigating them."
"You do deserve our protection and consideration," he told the Pleasant Valley residents. "And as long as we keep the lines of communication open, I think we'll be able to do the best we can to protect the community. And with more homes in Loudoun, I suspect you'll see a stricter push for operational controls at the airport."
Both Shang and Miller again requested a noise monitor for their community. Miller told Lebegern: "Just as you guys can't legislate or control what the feds do, you can't legislate or control what Loudoun does. There's going to be tens of thousands of houses five miles west of us. So there's a great urgency to put in a monitor as fast as possible, or that squeaky wheel [Loudoun] will get a hell of a lot more attention than we will."
Noting how "ancient" the existing noise monitors are in this area, Frey said, "We need something that's current and provides better data. I'll work with MWAA to get this addressed and get some of the members to meet with [Pleasant Valley residents] to continue the discussion about operational policies."
Still, Miller was uneasy. Afterward, he said, "The new runway is a gun pointed straight at our heads. They said they won't fire it at us, but they don't own or control it. And there are no guarantees that the runway use won't change — because they have no idea what winds are doing on any given day, or if any other runways will be out of commission."
"So we need a noise monitor immediately," said Miller. "Because, quite frankly, who knows what the noise exposure to the airport is? And with the new runway, it'll only get worse."