By the time you hear the noise, it's too late to sue
The loudest lawsuit in San Diego is about to end, not with a bang, but with a whisper. The Point Loma residents who in 1986 sued the port district over noise at Lindbergh Field have quietly capitulated. They ran out of money for lawyers and consultants.
Under the terms of the proposed truce, the port district will continue to promote an alternative to Lindbergh Field and will soundproof one home and a few schools. In return, the Airport Coalition agreed not to ask for a safety study on airport operations and to suspend its lawsuit for three years. If at the end of that time, both sides have lived up to the agreement, the legal action will be dismissed.
The proposed settlement is far from the $160 million the Airport Coalition originally sought. Coalition lawyers, however, are putting a happy face on the settlement, which is due to come before the port commissioners within a month. However, except for soundproofing a single home, other provisions of the agreement are actions the port district is already taking — mostly with federal money. The port has planned to soundproof Loma Portal Elementary School this summer at a cost of $1.2 million, $800,000 of which is coming from the Federal Aviation Administration. And if that source of cash dries up, so do the Port’s promises. “Actual construction would depend on the availability of... [federal] funding,” says Michael Gatzke, attorney for the port.
Pending formal port approval, port spokesman Dan Wilkens would neither confirm nor deny the settlement. John Turner, attorney for the coalition, said that 98 percent of the 300 plaintiffs still active in the suit voted to approve the deal. “That’s right, and we didn’t get anything,” said A.J. Mates, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “It’s pretty disappointing but probably the best that can be hoped for.”
When the first lawsuits were filed against the port in 1986, 1200 families in 12 legal actions were claiming damages for airport noise. By the following year, a judge dismissed 500 of the complaints and the rest were consolidated into a single suit. Mates and others who live under the flight path claimed that airport noise was damaging to their health and to the value of their homes in Point Loma, Golden Hill, and Mission Beach. Port officials replied that the noise was not as harmful as residents said and argued that most knew about the noise when they moved near the flight path.
By 1990, the port offered to settle the suit for $50,000 in attorneys’ fees. Coalition lawyers thought this was a great idea, but members of the Airport Coalition said no, possibly dreaming of the $200,000 per family payoff they had demanded.
With the trial scheduled to begin in July, negotiations intensified earlier this year. The coalition wanted money to soundproof about 35,000 homes in the 2.7-square-mile area beneath the flight path, where airport noise exceeded federal guidelines by 20 decibels. Port officials rejected the plan, saying it would cost between $200 million and $300 million.
At that point some members of the coalition began to worry about what would happen if they lost the case and then had to pay the port hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. So last month, the deal was cut. Members of the Airport Coalition received a letter from Turner telling them that “substantial progress” had been made in the negotiations and that it was time to settle. But Turner’s optimism could not obscure the real reason behind the settlement: in poker, it’s called put up or shut up.
“We must advise you that [you] are not in a strong position to go forward with a trial,” Turner explained to his clients. “As you may recall, we attempted to raise $100,000 per year to cover expert witnesses, consultants, and to retain the services of the Washington, D.C. law firm Cutler and Stanfield to assist in the litigation. Unfortunately, only $50,000 has been raised during the past two years.”
Angry homeowners had kicked in most of the money. The rest was raised at fundraisers, including a bake sale. But the coalition was short by $150,000. Earlier this month, members of the coalition voted to accept the port's offer, putting them back where they started in 1986.