Plane Injustice

From the neatly landscaped front yard of her Inglewood home, Aldene Sligh watches a jumbo jet make its heavy descent into L.A. International Airport. It is one of 1,000 or so planes that will pass over her tidy street throughout the day and night, flying low enough that neighbors can sometimes make out the airline logos. ”It‘s horrible,“ says Sligh, a grandmother, who has lived in this predominantly African-American community along Fourth Avenue for 36 years. A few decades ago, she says, the air traffic was hardly noticeable. But now, ”The noise is just unbearable.“

Under a controversial agreement signed by the city of Inglewood and Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs the airport, Sligh and other residents can receive free sound insulation for their homes. In addition to several minor concessions, the agency no longer will force residents to sign a contract that would have taken away the recipients’ right to sue for property damage or personal injury.

But the residents are not happy with the deal. The problem lies in what Inglewood agreed to give in return: a promise not to sue the airport owners, whose proposed expansion plans, according to the Environmental Impact Report released on January 18, would disproportionately affect minority and low-income residents.

”They‘ve marginalized us,“ says Sligh, whose home lies just outside the city’s designated noise contours, despite the fact that airplane noise is often loud enough to make normal conversation impossible. ”It‘s a minority community. They figure we’re the path of least resistance.“

The airport expansion would increase the number of passengers by a third and double the amount of cargo that comes into the airport each year. That translates into a lot of money for the city of Los Angeles, and a sizable chunk for Inglewood. As part of the agreement, up to $10 million will be set aside for improving Century Boulevard, in addition to money for sound insulation and ”land recycling“ -- buying out property owners in the most affected areas and rezoning the space for less noise-sensitive uses.

Alternatives to the proposed expansion include shifting flights to other regional airports, such as the former El Toro military base in Orange County. Unlike the LAX expansion plan, which puts 64 schools and more than a thousand residences under flight paths, the El Toro site has a buffer zone that is almost entirely empty. Another major difference between the two sites is that the residents near El Toro are wealthy and almost exclusively white.

”This is the beginning of the end of our city,“ says Inglewood Councilwoman Judy Dunlap, the only City Council member to vote against last week‘s agreement, which passed with a 3-1 vote on February 6. Not only did the City Council concede everything to the airport, she says, but they did so secretly and illegally, holding closed-door sessions for more than a year that even she did not know about at the time. ”The public was never given a chance to read this document,“ says Dunlap, who last year sued the city for concealing other policy-related papers from the public. The text of the agreement was not available to citizens until the day after it was approved by the city.

Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn disputed that the process was secretive and characterized the meetings as legal mediations between Inglewood and Los Angeles World Airports. The purpose of the agreement, he says, was to avoid a costly legal battle that would have ensued if the agency had not agreed to do away with the mandatory contract. ”From now on, no one will have to sign,“ he says, claiming the agreement as a major victory for residents. ”Finally, the airport is recognizing the fact that unless they treat the city of Inglewood fairly, they’re facing a lawsuit.“

In a letter to council members, Congresswoman Maxine Waters voiced her dissent, calling the agreement ”a cynical attempt to make it appear that the concerns raised regarding the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) will be corrected.“

Community activists agree. ”They‘re very shrewd people out there at LAX,“ says Mike Stevens, president of LAX Expansion NO!, a group dedicated to halting the airport’s growth. Stevens sees the agreement as a move that brings LAX expansion one step closer to reality. ”Dorn has sold us a bill of goods.“

Not so, says Dorn, who insists that the agreement has nothing to do with airport expansion. ”The city of Inglewood is just as opposed to expansion as it ever was before,“ he says. ”Watch and observe. The proof is in observing and seeing it happen.“

If Dorn is against expansion, Councilwoman Dunlap argues, he has yet to show it. ”He has given LAX everything they want,“ she says. ”When you don‘t give them what they want, that’s fighting expansion.“

Airport officials maintain that the memorandum is merely an attempt to address the needs of Inglewood residents. ”We operate a facility that, unfortunately, does have an impact on the community,“ concedes Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. Since residents didn‘t feel comfortable signing the contract, the requirement was dropped. ”We want to be a good neighbor.“

The idea that the airport agency is on her side makes Inglewood resident Jacqueline Welsh laugh. ”I don’t see them thinking about the quality of life for the people who live here,“ she says. ”All they care about is money.“ Welsh, a homemaker living in an airport-close neighborhood where many of the residents speak only Spanish, worries that the black soot that she has to scrape off her fruit trees could be collecting in the lungs of her two young daughters. She doesn‘t know the extent to which the airport contributes to that pollution, because conclusive studies have not been done. Nor have there been studies quantifying the pollutants’ relationship to increased incidences of asthma and cancer, although the environmental report for the expansion project does state that such illnesses are likely to increase.

Property values in this neighborhood have plummeted, even as the rest of Los Angeles has enjoyed record highs. So when a friend told Welsh that the city had recently purchased his house for what she calls ”good money,“ Welsh started thinking about relocation as the best possibility. ”I wouldn‘t really mind them buying us out, to be honest,“ she says. ”I’m just sick of the way this city has become.“

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