Proposed international-airport terminal mobilizes LB advocacy groups in opposition

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CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

JetBlue Airways’s proposal to offer international flights out of the Long Beach Airport still needs to be addressed by the City Council, and this week, two Long Beach groups critical of the request to build a customs facility and international terminal at the city’s municipal airport are actively recruiting and organizing residents in an effort to educate them on the issues that date back more than 30 years.

Photos by CJ Dablo/Signal Tribune Linda Sopo transcribes questions from the residents who attended an April 20 meeting to discuss the noise ordinance and the proposal to build a customs facility and international terminal at the Long Beach Airport. The meeting at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls was hosted by the groups Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2.

Photos by CJ Dablo/Signal Tribune
Linda Sopo transcribes questions from the residents who attended an April 20 meeting to discuss the noise ordinance and the proposal to build a customs facility and international terminal at the Long Beach Airport. The meeting at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls was hosted by the groups Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2.

Organizers reported that about 117 individuals attended a meeting on Monday, April 20 at the Expo Arts Center hosted by Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2. According to community advocate and former city councilmember Rae Gabelich, Long Beach Neighborhoods First was established as a forum for neighborhood councils throughout the city to discuss their needs. In the event that they need to bring large numbers of people together, the groups could support one another. LB HUSH2 is largely concerned with airport matters and its impact on quality-of-life issues.

From left: Long Beach Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais, City Attorney Charles Parkin and City Prosecutor Doug Haubert present an overview of the noise ordinance of the municipal airport at a meeting hosted by Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2 on April 20.

From left: Long Beach Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais, City Attorney Charles Parkin and City Prosecutor Doug Haubert present an overview of the noise ordinance of the municipal airport at a meeting hosted by Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2 on April 20.

These groups are preparing for a future meeting in which Council members will be expected to offer direction to staff regarding the request by JetBlue Airways. Last March, since there was no Council representative from the 4th District, the Council voted to delay any request surrounding the facility until 60 days after the Council has full representation. Now that residents in that district have elected Daryl Supernaw to the Council last week, he is scheduled to take office on May 5. A Council discussion surrounding the international-customs facility could take place as early as July.

CJ Dablo/Signal Tribune Community advocate Rae Gabelich urged residents to support the efforts of Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2 at an April 20 meeting at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls. Both groups have criticized a request from JetBlue Airways to build a customs facility and international terminal at the Long Beach Airport. Gabelich is a former city councilmember for Long Beach's 8th District.

CJ Dablo/Signal Tribune
Community advocate Rae Gabelich urged residents to support the efforts of Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2 at an April 20 meeting at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls. Both groups have criticized a request from JetBlue Airways to build a customs facility and international terminal at the Long Beach Airport. Gabelich is a former city councilmember for Long Beach’s 8th District.

Leaders of LB HUSH2 have had a long history of protesting major expansion plans at the municipal airport. They have said that this is an issue that especially affects the quality of life for the residents who live along the flight path of the airplanes. Furthermore, there are fears that any changes to the airport could mean more litigation.

“We’ve got a beautiful municipal airport right now, and we want to keep it that way,” local realtor and community advocate Joe Sopo said Monday. “We don’t want to do anything to change or open us up to a lawsuit.”

Last Monday, many of the residents expressed fears that a key municipal law could be threatened by the latest proposal to build a new customs facility. The fight to establish and keep the noise ordinance goes back decades. Former city councilmember Jeff Kellogg recalled the legal challenges against the ordinance when he served on the Council in the late 1980s. He suggested that the issue could affect home values and warned residents to take a cautious approach when dealing with changes to the airport that could threaten the noise ordinance.
“It’s a fight you don’t want to get into. It’s a fight you won’t win entirely. It’s a fight you won’t win to your satisfaction,” Kellogg said as he described the importance of the ordinance. “So be very careful what you’re playing with, and understand, we’ve got something that everybody else wants.”

According to a presentation by Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais, there is a strict noise ordinance in place that enforces a “soft curfew” on flights to and from the airport. Commercial flights must be scheduled between 7am and 10pm. Fines are issued to carriers that violate the stipulations of the noise ordinance. JetBlue Airways has a consent decree for their noise violations, and the airline incurred about $300,000 in fines last year.

City Prosecutor Doug Haubert stressed the importance of the noise ordinance.

“[This] is an incredibly unique ordinance. There is no city in the country that has the protections that Long Beach currently has,” Haubert said, explaining how City officials are striving to preserve and maintain the ordinance.

“Cities cannot adopt ordinances like ours today,” he added later, describing the circumstances under which the ordinance was eventually exempted from a federal law. “We fit a very narrow window, and we can’t fit that window anymore.”

Gabelich said in an interview after the meeting that she hopes to have at least one more meeting in the 4th District to discuss the airport issues. She explained that some residents may be too young to remember the original HUSH group that protested airport expansion over the years, and right now the groups are focusing on educating residents about the significance of the plans to create an international terminal.

In a short speech to the meeting attendees, Gabelich cited a particular study that concluded that expenditures from visitors who would use an international terminal would have a small impact on the Long Beach economy. She acknowledged that this information was given to the previous sitting city council, and that many of the current councilmembers are new to the office and may be unfamiliar with the issues.

“They (the new Council) have a lot of catching up to do,” Gabelich said, as she pressed for more community involvement in the airport issue. “And we have a lot of catching up to do to make sure that we’re on the same page, the right page, to protect our neighborhoods. It could turn out [to be] a good thing. It could turn out to be a moot point, but I think that we have to be at the table to join that conversation.”

No representative of JetBlue Airways was present to speak at the meeting on April 20. In response to an inquiry from the Signal Tribune, JetBlue executive Robert Land sent a statement to address concerns that the noise ordinance may be threatened. Land serves as the airline’s senior vice president for government affairs and the associate general counsel.

“As we stated in testimony before the City Council, JetBlue believes that its request in no way jeopardizes— and in fact is fully consistent with— the rules and regulations governing use of the airport,” he said in his statement. “JetBlue has uniquely defended the noise ordinance from threats of multiple carriers over the years, who have since ceased serving the airport, and will continue to support and defend the ordinance.”

Although Gabelich disputes whether the facility could really financially benefit Long Beach, Land emphasized that the customs facility would not only make international flights possible, but it would also “grow jobs and boost the regional economy.” He criticized the Council’s decision earlier this year to wait until July to address the request for a customs facility.

“JetBlue remains disappointed in the five-month delay imposed by the City Council to even begin necessary due-diligence work on our pending request for a customs facility submitted in February,” he said. “We will await the end of that moratorium to see if the City will then engage with us.”