The Continually Growing Buffer Paradox

by Daniel McDowell

One of the more significant problems in aviation today is that of incompatible development around airports. Three primary issues stand out when there is development around airports, especially off the approach or departure ends of runways: noise, incompatible development, and encroachment. The noise problem is very closely connected to land use because the greatest mitigator of noise is distance from the source. In other words, an ideally situated airport should be surrounded by a noise buffer area consisting of open land and clear runway approach and departure zones.

Land located near the high noise impact area (under approach and departure paths), which should be clear of buildings and other obstacles, could be used for less noise-sensitive activity like agricultural, environmental watershed, or possibly even highway interchanges where appropriate. Sadly, for those airports that do have open land around their perimeter, that open land appears to be a magnet for developers with goals that are too often discordant with the airport’s goals and needs.

Far too often airports are surrounded by buildings that are incompatible with airport area land-use and noise mitigation recommendations. Many former “buffer” parcels around airports all over the country have been developed and now contain residences, noise sensitive businesses, schools, and public gathering facilities.

This encroachment is largely driven by the overriding draw of “potential” or “perceived” dollars for the tax base or profit by cities and developers. It continues to happen because of a lack of understanding or sensitivity about airport safety zone restrictions and needs, noise mitigation, and aviation safety guidelines by developers, cities and counties.

Land-use planning and zoning are the responsibilities of local and state governments. It is unfortunate that many of these government entities (across the nation), have been unable and in some cases simply unwilling to provide mutual protection for city and airport development. Thus the seemingly “underutilized land” surrounding or bordering an airport, becomes very “valuable,” and too easily attracts potential development.

Even when appropriate ordinances and guidelines exist, developers are frequently able to obtain permits, variances, and waivers. These permits, variances, and waivers may ultimately impact the safety of the airport including the pilots and passengers that use the airport. They additionally impact the safety of the people living and working in the encroaching homes and businesses. Allowing encroachment also begins to severely limit the growth potential, as well as the asset value of the airport.

Whether through the lack of understanding, or because of perceived or real political pressure, courts have frequently ruled in favor of the developers, disregarding the safety and health risks that future residents of that development would face on a daily basis.

The continued unfettered encroachment on airport land can also severely restrict or eliminate the ability of the airport to expand and grow as the city’s traveling population grows. Encroachment will also restrict the airport’s ability to respond to the demands for more aviation services, as needs increase.

Complicating the continually growing buffer paradox is the frequent inability of governmental entities to effectively communicate and cooperate with each other.

Few airports exist completely within the jurisdiction of one municipality that owns and operates the facility. Thus, the municipalities are potentially faced with conflicting rules, different interpretations of rules, different best practices, or conflicting philosophies and priorities in relation to the airport and its operation.

For example, a municipality that owns an airport may be well aware of the advantages and even disadvantages of that airport, whereas a municipality that simply borders an airport may primarily see only the perceived disadvantages.

Many airport operators have sole liability for damage due to airport noise. Recognizing that, some surrounding municipalities may feel little if any need to support or enforce zoning laws because complaints will be directed to the owning municipality and not to them.

Airport commissions, boards and managers too often are inconsistent in keeping their municipality leaders educated and informed about the value of the airport to their communities. Thus, when the municipality or city leadership changes, hard fought and won protection for the airport is weakened or significantly eroded because the supporting leadership mindset has changed.

One example of this is the “new” Denver International Airport (DIA), which was built 23 miles from downtown Denver on the open plains and farmland.

It was built there on 34,000 acres (approximately 53-square miles of land) to allow for future expansion and noise mitigation among other important reasons. But development of residential housing near the new airport has brought about the very thing the airport tried to avoid happening. That is the problem of aircraft noise impacts on surrounding communities, and the resultant complaints. In the second quarter of 2014, DIA registered 33 noise complaints.

This has come about because of changes in local governments. Those changes include local priorities, the economy, the municipal leadership’s lack of understanding of the importance and value of the airport, and the critical need for buffer land for clear runway safety zones and noise mitigation. Most governmental agencies are not against compatible land use, when safety for the flying public, as well as those on the ground, is involved.

The future of many of our nation’s airports is at significant risk of being encroached upon, and thus their potential for growth may be severely restricted, if not eliminated. In addition, significant safety and health risks are being placed upon our citizens when incompatible construction is allowed to encroach upon any airport. This is especially important when the construction is placed within runway safety zones, or under landing and departure paths. It should also demonstrate the vital importance of following your state’s airport zoning laws and guidelines.

Every aviator and aviation enthusiast, and every person who flies anywhere, whether for business or pleasure, should take an active interest and play an active role in working to secure the future of their hometown airport. Your airport is a very valuable asset to your community and your state. Failure to protect it and support it will ultimately be a significant blow to aviation locally and to the municipality. This will happen when the airport can no longer meet the needs and demands of the citizenry, or because of encroachment, it becomes unsafe for aviators to use it.

The loss of jobs and revenue from airport sales and services, and the loss of tourism dollars from the demise of an airport, will affect every citizen of that community.

Companies and the people they employ, move to cities that have capabilities of providing the air transportation services and needs that a traveling and time-aware workforce and the general public demands. When incompatible construction is allowed to continually encroach upon our airports, communities could be forced to close that airport, and the front door to those communities will be gone forever!

Once strip malls, housing, or business complexes are built in airport buffer or safety zones, or along/under direct approach and departure flight paths of an airport, the future of that airport is in jeopardy. Bear in mind that once an airport is gone, the possibility of replacing it would be at best, extremely low, while the cost of replacing it would be, with little doubt, extremely high.

Every aviator should endeavor to stay fully aware of what is happening at their airport, and stay up to date on significant local issues. This is so each individual can help to inform the non-flying members of the community and the community leaders about the value and importance of the city’s airport and the critical importance of providing proper safety corridors and zones for the airport. Support your local airport manager!

Only through active, consistent, and clear communication and information, will aviators, cities, and their airports be able to reduce or avoid the continually growing buffer paradox.

This entry was posted in Airports, Columns, Columns, MN Aeronautics Bulletin, October/November 2014 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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