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Votes

New Runway Worries Pleasant Valley Residents

At the start of Tuesday night's meeting between local residents and people representing Fairfax County, the area airports and government, Cynthia Shang presented some eye-opening facts:

DULLES International Airport has no noise-abatement procedures, airport curfews, operating quota, aircraft-engine run-up restrictions or noise-level limits. And it's adding two more runways to its current three.

In two more years, planes about to land on a new, north-south runway there will travel on a dedicated flight path directly over Chantilly's Pleasant Valley community.

"It's planned for 2-percent use until [the fifth] runway is completed, around 2016," said Shang, president of that community's homeowners association, the Pleasant Valley Neighborhood Connection. "But that means at least 14,000 flights a year will go over our neighborhood and, as the airport grows, that number will eventually reach 20,000."

Stressing that Dulles is the fourth-busiest airport in the U.S. and among the top 10 in the world, she said it now has 1,800 to 2,000 flights a day — equaling some 700,000 flights a year. And it's projected to have nearly 1 million annual flights by 2025.

"WE'RE LESS than three miles away from the southernmost point of the new, fourth runway, 1W/19W," said Shang. "And the closest noise-monitoring station to us — about five miles away at the Chantilly Post Office — has shown average yearly aircraft noise between 61-65 decibels since 1998."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses 65 decibels as the acceptable limit, and it and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) say noise from the new runway shouldn't adversely affect Pleasant Valley residents because, theoretically, they're outside that limit.

But the residents aren't buying it, and they want a noise monitor installed closer to them so they can obtain a baseline of their current noise exposure and see if — and how much — it changes once the new runway is operational.

"There's no minimum height for arrival or departure," added Shang. "So aircraft can be 692 to 968 feet — about 800 feet in general — above our homes."

Right now, she said, the neighborhood of 541 homes is on the outskirts of the airport. But there'll be a big, noise difference when the planes are flying directly overhead. She said resident geologist John Mars went to several locations recently and recorded sound at least 3.2 miles away from the runways to show the current noise level at the center of the community.

"All these sites were in industrial areas — which can tolerate higher noise levels than can residential areas," said Shang. "Two sites averaged a noise level of 72 decibels — well above the 65 decibels the FAA has said is a comfortable living level."

So, she continued, "We may be in a higher noise-contour level than the FAA predicted we'd be in. And according to the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan of 2003, we're within the 65-decibel range, so therefore we should be eligible for some mitigation measures. So how do we resolve this? With a noise monitor."

SHANG AND other residents also noted that, although pilots aren't supposed to do nighttime takeoffs from Dulles' easternmost runway, they are. And in the FAA's own, airport-noise study — called Part 150 — issued in March 1993, it stated that these takeoffs expose Pleasant Valley residents to decibel levels greater than 65.

"They knew they needed to use the western runway at night for takeoffs," said Scott Miller, an engineer and Pleasant Valley resident. "But they're not abiding by it."

Instead, he said, they depart from the easternmost runway at night and fly south, directly over Pleasant Valley. And adding insult to injury, said the residents, the pilots often make early — and noisy — turns over their houses.

"In the past 13 years, MWAA has never applied for Airport-Improvement Program funds [which require federal and congressional approval]," said Shang. "Nor has it used the Passenger Facility Charge funds [of $4.50/ticket] for noise mitigation."

She then asked for noise-abatement procedures to be implemented at Dulles and a noise monitor installed either at the Pleasant Valley Golf Course or the Cub Run Rec Center.

Neal Phillips, MWAA's noise-abatement manager, said decibel level depends on a variety of ever-changing factors, including the type of aircraft flying, how long they spend in the noise contour and the weather. And he said he and the county, the vendor and the Council of Governments (COG) would need to choose the location for a noise monitor.

Phillips said a monitor costs $25,000 to $30,000, and he agreed that Pleasant Valley should have one. But he said it entails a process involving regional and local governments who "help us get the permits we need to put these things in."

Besides Phillips and local residents, also attending Tuesday's meeting (held at Chantilly Bible Church), were Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully); Carol Hawn, chairman of the Fairfax County Airports Advisory Committee; Noel Kaplan, with the county's Department of Planning and Zoning; LuAnn McNabb, representing Del. Chuck Caputo (D-67th); and J.T. Griffin, representing Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th).

Hawn said her committee's willing to work with MWAA, COG and the supervisors "to make sure the citizens are heard on the noise-monitor issue." Frey, too, supports a monitor for the community, but said the Board of Supervisors "won't be able to do anything until MWAA sets up a funding process [for one]."

PHILLIPS HOPED to have the needed money to start the procurement process by Jan. 1, as soon as MWAA's budget is approved. A male resident then asked, "Why not be pro-active and prohibit the super jumbo jets, for example, from using the new runway?"

But Phillips said that couldn't be done until and unless "they start flying the aircraft off the [new] runway and we can see a difference [in decibel level because of them]. Until we've got something to show that the noise level is greater than [the 65 decibels] predicted in the EIS [Environmental Inpact Study for that runway], the FAA won't listen to us."

If it's determined that a new, Part 150 study is needed, he said, then a large committee would "hammer out a list of recommendations they think should happen at the airport and submit it to the FAA for its approval."

However, Phillips warned it could take as long as three years from the time it's officially determined that a noise problem exists until recommendations to fix it are made. And in the meanwhile, he acknowledged, the noise monitor at the Chantilly Post Office is 18 years old and not working.

Pleasant Valley's Joe Burton complained that, every night, he's woken up around 3:30 a.m. by a helicopter flying overhead. "I know we need the airport, but I need some sleep," he said. Burton said a no-fly curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. would be great.

But Frey said the supervisors have no jurisdiction, since Dulles is a federal airport. And he said the nearly 24 million passengers flying out of there each year is expected to eventually increase to 55 million "so there's significant growth coming." And although the county rezoned the property around the airport to industrial in 1982, it doesn't have the authority to regulate flight operations.

Besides that, said Frey, "Dulles Airport generates the economy here, and restrictions would affect passenger and cargo operations there. So you're going to have a tough time asking people to restrict operations at the fourth-largest airport in the country."

But residents argued that the "airplanes are [already] insanely loud and ridiculously low" over their homes and, at times, the noise shakes the houses. And once the new runway's operational, said Miller, "Pilots won't have a choice but to come directly over our neighborhood. And no other neighborhood in Fairfax or Loudoun [counties] will share that burden with us."