In her decision on May 21st, U.S. District Court Judge LaBuda sided with Mile-Hi Skydiving. At the root of Judge LaBuda’s decision was a total deference to FAA, the federal agency that manages aviation issues by letting operators do whatever they want … and the same federal agency that protects aviation from environmental accountability. A classic captured regulatory agency. This huge legal effort by Citizens for Quiet Skies (CQS) has always been aimed at correcting this problem, seeking to restore meaningful local control so airports will again serve not just pilots but the local community, too.
In June, Judge LaBuda awarded nearly $68,000 to Mile-Hi for supposedly “reasonable costs.” These costs included $40,000 for Mile-Hi’s noise expert, and costs incurred for defense counsel Anthony Leffert to fly to California and sit next to the noise expert during his deposition. Adding insult to injury, two months after the trial’s conclusion the Judge went further and granted another $48,000 in “attorney fees” to Mile-Hi Skydiving, opining that the lawsuit was ‘frivolous’ and agreeing that the plaintiffs should be punished for some of the claims that were dismissed prior to trial. The plaintiffs must now submit 125% of the awarded amount to the court until the appeal is concluded – $145,000 in total.
These are ordinary citizens who, as you can well imagine, will have to liquidate retirement accounts and make very difficult financial choices. Make no mistake, Judge LaBuda’s clearly punitive actions toward the plaintiffs are aimed at driving a stake right through the heart of citizen activism – not just at this airport, but at ALL U.S. airports.
Citizens for Quiet Skies is standing tall. Kimberly Gibbs wrote a great letter, No Ceiling for Noise, posted at FreeRangeLongmont.com on August 2nd. Kimberly also shares that the first payment to the legal team has been made, with CQS offering many thanks to the hundreds who have contributed to help cover legal expenses throughout the trial and now with the appeal. Funds are still needed to cover the expense to proceed with the appeal, so please consider making a generous donation to this effort – their work is on behalf of many skydiving victim communities across the country. It’s easy, just click the donate button on their website at: http://citizensforquietskies.org/
One reaction to Judge LaBuda’s decisions has been some fairly intense (and often very uncivil) commentary, particularly at the local Longmont newspaper (TimesCall.com) and the local Boulder newspaper (DailyCamera.com). A better collection of letters, with faster access, no ads, and more moderate and civil comments, is viewable at FreeRangeLongmont.com. It is clear that the community is very deeply split. Skydivers and other aviation-types (including airport officials) continue to make wild claims of how the airport boosts the economy, and the worst members of their ‘group’ continue to attack Ms. Gibbs and others; a growing number of neighbors have had enough, are rejecting the pro-aviation pitches and expressing outrage at what the court has done.
Here is a recent online comment by one of those neighbors:
Click on page two to view copies of more online comments supporting the need for mitigation of the Mile-Hi Skydiving noise impact.
KLMO airport webpage now includes a Reference Page with an extensive collection of links to online articles, letters-to-editor, and more.— The
“The current FAA rules actually provide loopholes that serve to protect offenders and prevent the application and enforcement of reasonable noise standards for aviation operators. Many of these aviation businesses that create excessive community noise impacts are based at airports subsidized using federal air passenger taxes, and these taxes are paid by people flying through the large commercial airports. Thus, FAA is using our money to enable skydiving, air tour, and other recreational operators to generate large personal profits, while at the same time diminishing the quality of life for our neighborhoods.”
– a key point made in the attached ‘Sample Letter’
A common practice among skydiving operators is that they will fly at least a few miles away from their base airport, so that the long drone of their noisy climbs will not disturb people at and near the airport. The effect is an offset of the noise impact, typically onto quiet rural areas and/or distant residential neighborhoods. Suddenly, for entire weekends, areas that previously had no substantial aviation noise are hearing the irritating grind of skydiving climbs ALL DAY LONG!
This is an ongoing problem in communities across the nation. So, when the homeowners near Longmont, Colorado pressed their skydiving noise concerns all the way to their local U.S. District Court, they did us all a great favor. Unfortunately, the Judge deferred strongly to FAA to justify not ruling against the skydiving noise operator. And so, Mile Hi Skydiving Center is continuing to destroy quality of life in the residential neighborhoods they climb over … some near the Longmont Airport, but many quite a few miles away. Check out this outstanding video created to document the impact for a typical day of Longmont skydiving noise:
In the big picture, if FAA was doing a ‘balanced’ job, regulating aviation commerce while also serving the larger public, we would not have such severe noise impacts, and we would not need civil actions like Citizens for Quiet Skies et al v. Mile-Hi Skydiving Center. But the fact is, FAA is failing, especially as regards the substantial environmental impacts of aviation. So, our best bet to demand real performance by FAA is to go to Congress, and get our elected officials to demand FAA clean up its act.
Page two of this Post presents a sample letter to elected officials. You can use it to model your own letter, wherever your home is being impacted by out-of-control skydiving noise. This particular letter was submitted anonymously by a person familiar with the Longmont skydive noise issue and the recent District Court trial. The author presents some very good points, as well as suggestions for how Congress can correct some of FAA’s failures.
So, please read this letter carefully and, if you are inspired to write your own, please consider sharing it with this website, where we will gladly post it as you wish, with (or without) your name.
Such might have been mumbled by a homeowner or an old-fashioned reporter, at the conclusion of the case, Citizens for Quiet Skies et al v. Mile-Hi Skydiving Center, heard in the U.S. District Court, in Boulder, Colorado.
The case was a bench trial before Judge Judith LaBuda, who heard five days of testimony, April 13-17, 2015. Judge LaBuda conducted a site visit on May 2nd, to experience the noise impact (while defendant Mile-Hi kept their flights far away … but only for a few hours!) and closing arguments were presented on May 6th. Both parties submitted Proposed Findings of Fact on May 15th. Judge LaBuda issued her decision on May 21st, siding with Mile-Hi Skydiving while articulating a heavy deference to FAA’s regulatory authority.
The principle spokespeople for the two sides were Kimberly Gibbs and Frank Casares. Both speak in this video, posted at TimesCall, one of the local papers that has been following this issue.
Ms. Gibbs lives 6-miles south of the Longmont airport. Like her neighbors, she pays taxes on the home in her neighborhood. She works. She comes home to relax and recover for her next workday. She sometimes invites friends over to enjoy each others’ company, to have conversations and a nice meal on a pleasant afternoon. She lives in a part of the world blessed with fine weather for outside living, where a backyard barbeque is a treat. All of these activities are possible when normal backyard noise conditions exist. These activities are destroyed by persistent noise.
Mr. Casares is an aviation business owner. He makes money by carrying as many people as possible to an altitude of 17,999 feet (the highest FAA will allow), so they can drop out of an airplane and parachute back to the airport west of Longmont. The faster his airplanes climb, the more profit he makes; so, the aircraft types are selected, and propellers and fuel-flow rates are also selected, to maximize rate of climb. A consequence of these settings (prop RPM, prop pitch, etc.) is that his aircraft make a much higher level of irritant noise than do other small aircraft. So, to keep the airport happy, he simply has his pilots fly a few miles away from Longmont. This ensures that the local airport neighbors do not have to endure a droning climb noise all day long on his most profitable business days. And, as a benefit, the vast majority of people impacted, say 5- to 8- miles away, have no idea that the horrific droning airplane noise is part of a skydive operation, making all that noise heard by thousands of residents, sometimes to serve just 2- or 4- skydivers.
So, the crux of the problem at Longmont is this: because Mr. Casares’ pilots go miles away from their drop zone to do their long and noisy climbs, other – and more distant – airport neighbors bear the brunt of the noise impact. FAA is granted wide deference in matters that relate to aviation. So, when a case about aviation noise nuisance goes to trial in a U.S. District Court, it is not unusual for the Judge to defer to FAA. But, what the Judge is not factoring in is how deeply FAA serves aviation money, and how the record shows, FAA would really prefer to not waste its time balancing the profit ambitions of aviation businesses to preserve the residential expectation of ‘Peace and Quiet’.
This is what is called a ‘taking’. Mr Casares’ planes fly for his profit, and when FAA lends cover to Mr. Casares, Ms. Gibbs’ home becomes not a place of ‘Peace and Quiet’, but a place to leave on days when skydiving happens. In effect, Mr. Casares, with a little help from FAA, has ‘taken away’ the rights of Ms. Gibbs and her neighbors to enjoy the homes and the liberties we like to think are protected in this nation.
PDFs of related documents are attached at pages 2 thru 5.
…over and over again, by Mile-Hi Skydiving, while the family tries to enjoy a Sunday morning celebration for their high school graduate. This Letter to Editor tells the story quite well:
Yet another example of FAA’s failure to manage aviation impacts. Time for Reform.
The Front Range west of Denver offers spectacular vistas, like the Flatirons shown above, just south of Boulder. Ample sunshine makes it a natural for people to be outside. Many are drawn here for the opportunity to have an active and outdoor lifestyle. But, due to lack of effective FAA regulation, what might have been John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High‘ has instead become a noise nightmare reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’. Repetitive noise, just like intense silence, drives people crazy.
Northeast of Boulder an outfit called ‘Mile-Hi Skydiving’ has been impacting quality of life around Longmont since the mid-1990’s. It is a classic example of the skydiving impacts that FAA refuses to address, just like happens in hundreds of rural areas around the country. Typically, these outfits set up business just outside large urban centers. In Portland, OR, for example, a skydive company intensively advertises on busses and bus shelters to draw customers out to Molalla. A few city-dwellers then drive out to the country and pay for a cheap thrill ride, oblivious to the fact they are destroying the country lifestyle below. The flights are under the south arrival corridor into [KPDX], so way back in 1991, FAA officials coordinated with the operator to do their climbs about 8-miles to the northeast of their airport [OL05]. Most people in that area are unaware of why they are subjected to so much airplane noise, particularly intense on weekends and nice summer days.
The Skydiving Business Model
Jack would understand: this is a business, aimed at making a profit. Mile-Hi flies large and noisy aircraft up and down, up and down, all day long. To maximize profits, they select aircraft for maximum climb rate. If a particular engine or propeller design/setting increases the climb rate, they use it, with zero regard for the noise level. If a noisier climb takes only 12-minutes but a quieter climb takes 15-minutes, most skydiving outfits will opt for the noisier climb to save 3 minutes (and thus add a few more flights per day). Commonly, with skydive operations, they hire pilots on the cheap, which is easy to do since FAA and the industry have worked together for decades to ensure there is a large pool of eager, low-hour pilots. They need to build up hours before airlines will hire them. So, when a company like Mile-Hi offers a $199 cash price for tandem jumps (the kind where you are strapped to a so-called ‘instructor’ for your one-time
lesson thrill-ride), their profit margin is enormous. Which makes it all the more puzzling why local airports often charge very little (or even nothing) to set up at fields like Vance Brand Airport [KLMO], in Longmont. (see the pink circle below)
As a business, they take a fee from each skydiver, to add to their company profit. But that is not the only ‘taking’. They also take peace and quiet from thousands of local residents who must endure the low-frequency reverberating drone that destroys their summer days. Worse yet, the impacts also happen for hours and even full days in the other seasons, for year-round operators like Mile-Hi. The local residents lose quality of life; they get no compensation for their loss. They can complain to FAA, who will routinely tell them to take it up with the business or airport. They can complain to the business or airport, who will tell them the program is ‘FAA compliant’ and refer them back to the FAA with their complaint. The citizens face a black hole where neither operators nor FAA officials are held accountable; thus, real citizens effectively have no rights to resolve an adverse impact that FAA condones.
The Civil Action
The matter has irritated local residents so much that they filed a lawsuit. A group called Citizens for Quiet Skies gradually formed, and in late 2013 the group and seven individuals filed a lawsuit (Case# 2013CV031563) at the U.S. District Court in Boulder, CO. A 5-day trial was held last week. District Court Judge Judith LaBuda plans to do a site visit on May 1st, before issuing her ruling.
The group raised funds to cover their legal expenses, and some incurred personal debt. Of course, people should not have to take on personal debt to right a wrong, and they would not have to if FAA would properly apply environmental considerations to regulate operations like Mile-Hi Skydiving. Nor should people have to endure harassment by aviation companies or even by aviators in flight. In May 2012, Mile-Hi sent Kimberly Gibbs a letter, with a “Have a Great Summer!” poster, as well as a bumper sticker that read ‘I love airplane noise!’. Weeks later, there was the Memorial Day family gathering in the backyard, when a helicopter suddenly appeared over the treetops and hovered at less than 200-feet altitude. This incident is a blatantly serious case of aviation harassment, the sort of thing FAA would aggressively act on, if they were not so in bed with the industry they fail to regulate.
Good people know right from wrong. Better people refuse to cower to bullies. The best people fight back, to not only take care of their own bad situation, but even more to protect others from future repeats of the same injustices. As Ms. Gibbs puts it, “Sometimes you have to stand up and push the bully back into the lockers.”