IT’S 5 P.M. ON LABOR DAY, and Virginia Ernst has already recorded 45 jet flights on her “Jet Emission and Excessive Noise Log.” Ernst has grown so proficient, she can often tell the kind of jet about to fly over her West Los Angeles home by the sound and smell.
The Citation, Ernst says, “makes a high-pitched whine like a dentist’s drill. You can smell them before you hear them.” But it’s the G4s — private luxury jets so big they cast a shadow across her single-story house — that are particularly nerve wracking. There have been two so far this day, and with the long weekend winding down, the big corporate-and-celebrity jets favored by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rich and famous should start filing in before sunset.
“My backyard is totally useless,” says Ernst, who bought the house just east of the runway with her husband in 1962, when she was 19 years old. “We got rid of the lawn furniture. We can’t have anything back there. You had to scrub it to get the black soot out.”
For a decade, Ernst, who works at the USC library, has been a key player in an ongoing battle to fight the noise and pollution that comes with living near a once-sleepy municipal airport that has exploded in activity, servicing the booming entertainment and high-tech mecca that is the Westside.
Since 1994, the number of jet operations at the 62-year-old airport has soared from 4,829 to 18,100 per year, according to Santa Monica officials. The real surge came after 9/11, as the very rich and corporate honchos sought a way around long security checks at LAX. Now they face hardly any lines — and they’re much closer to their Westside mansions and corporate offices. These jets are bigger too, now that companies like NetJets offer “fractional ownership” as well as leases of large, luxurious jets. And there’s no end in sight.
“You can have nothing but a flat piece of asphalt and a guard shack — and you’ll still have the limos there,” says Bob Trimborn, the Santa Monica Airport manager. “There’s some of the most desirable and expensive real estate within five miles of us. It’s location, location, location.”
Ernst and her neighbors have been fighting to control jet traffic, taking the city of Santa Monica to court, staging protests, backing bills in the state Legislature and lobbying Congress.
Now, a proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration has mobilized residents from West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Mar Vista and helped forge an unlikely coalition that includes Santa Monica city officials, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, state representatives Ted Lieu and Julia Brownley and U.S. representatives Henry Waxman and Jane Harman.
The battlefield is a 5,000-foot-long stretch of asphalt with houses sitting roughly 300 feet from each end, making it perhaps the closest juxtaposition of a busy runway with a residential area in the United States. Neighbors want the FAA to abide by its own standards, which call for 1,000 feet of runway at each end designated as a safety area. The city has proposed 300 feet, but the FAA is arguing for much shorter 155-foot safety areas — including 130 feet of light concrete that helps arrest speeding aircraft, much like a runaway-truck stop.
City officials, as well as neighbors and their elected representatives, note that the federal proposal falls far short and could endanger neighboring residences. “This latest proposal seems a little bit extreme in many ways,” says Trimborn. “It doesn’t really address the larger and faster aircraft” that could overrun the runway and veer into homes.
“It seems like [the FAA] is more concerned with access and preserving access than with safety enhancement,” he says.
The battle over the runway came to a head August 28 when more than 100 neighbors rallied on the City Hall lawn before a face-off between the Santa Monica City Council and FAA officials. “For more than 20 years, Santa Monica Airport has been operating — by the FAA’s own current standards — without any defined runoff safety areas for emergency situations,” argued Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, whose only partially tongue-in-check moniker is CRAAP.
“At Santa Monica Airport, in case of an unforeseen emergency, aircraft would run off either end of the runway, continue down an embankment, over a highly trafficked road and then into the homes,” Rubin told the frustrated crowd.
Later, in the council chambers, FAA officials downplayed the danger posed by jets. Kirk Shaffer, the FAA’s associate administrator for airports, who flew in from Washington, insisted that, “In the real world .?.?. we get the best safety outcome we can consistent with the airport serving its purpose” to remain part of the national airport system. He complained that, “The city’s staff report says the city’s goal is to maximize safety, but not to preserve the utility of the airport.”
Santa Monica City Council members fired back. “In our world, we are extremely sensitive to the safety of the people who live around the airport,” Council member Bobby Shriver said. “Our No. 1 goal is to make sure the residents we represent, and our friends on the West Los Angeles and Mar Vista side, are as safe as they can be.”
It was just the latest episode in the city’s losing battle to limit jets at an airstrip that has been around since Howard Hughes and McDonald Douglas were pioneering air travel in the beachside city at the end of the first World War.
Ever since the term “jet setter” was coined, jets have been zooming in and out of Santa Monica Airport carrying entertainers and Hollywood stars heading to Vegas on a whim at all hours. Back then, the jets were far noisier, and the neighbors complained just as loudly.
“Back in the old days, in the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, most big jets were about 10 times louder,” said Trimborn. “Everybody for miles around could hear them take off.”
The noise was so loud, Santa Monica banned jets from the airport — which the federal government controlled during World War II, and then returned to the city after the war. Longtime neighbors like Ernst still fondly recall the huge “No Jets” sign posted at the end of the runway that signaled a respite from noise so loud it rattled windows.
“When the sign was up there, I put a huge amount of money into remodeling my house,” said Margaret Williamson, who bought the house next door to Ernst in 1966.
The relative calm lasted only until the Santa Monica Airport Association, made up of local pilots, sued. On September 10, 1979, U.S. District Court Judge IrvingHill ruled that Santa Monica’s jet ban violated interstate commerce and equal-protection laws. The neighboring residents tending quiet yards along some of the most beautiful middle-class streets in Southern California were horrified. Surely the pollution that coated their yards and the incessant roar posed a health hazard, they thought. They stepped up their lobby.
Ernst was a key player in the battle. A 10-year-old video shot in her backyard shows lawn furniture blowing away as a jet streaks overhead. (See www.laweekly.com/news for video clip.) In the late 1990s, Ernst and a couple of neighbors sued the city and gained what turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory when a jury ordered the city to pay 6 percent of the assessed value of the plaintiffs’ homes, largely to help homeowners move away. But instead, Ernst says, “All the money went to attorneys” who fought the suit.
Last month, residents were dealt another setback when the Democratically controlled Senate Appropriations Committee in Sacramento, headed by Senate President Don Perata and Appropriations Chair Tom Torlakson, failed to back a bill that would have for the first time measured jet pollution around the airport, marking the second time Democrats have quashed the bill.
Residents blamed the Legislature and Santa Monica City Council, which supported the pollution-measuring plan — but helped doom it when council members made clear they would not pay for its associated costs.
Known for its pioneering antismoking laws and ban on Styrofoam containers, the council turned its back, activists charge. Says Rubin, “Santa Monica has shown that it can talk the talk, but it repeatedly walks feebly.”
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.