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Citizens group raises uproar over O’Hare noise panel

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:38AM

Though about a dozen miles from O’Hare International Airport, the city’s 40th Ward would have a seat on an O’Hare noise commission under an ordinance backed last week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader.

But the proposal was not enough for one citizens group, which contends seven other Chicago wards impacted by new O’Hare flight paths also should be added — and the chair of the commission should resign.

“The O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission has failed in its stated mission to be an advocate for communities affected by O’Hare noise,’’ said Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, or FAIR.

“As a result ... that requires a leadership change.’’

The 52-member Noise Commission that touts itself as “internationally recognized” got drawn into a growing O’Hare jet noise debate last week, when Emanuel backed an ordinance to add a representative from his floor leader’s ward to the commission, and FAIR charged the mayor was “late on arrival” to the issue and should do more.

The commission “supervises the nation’s leading residential sound insulation program,’’ monitors a Fly Quiet Program to reduce night-time aircraft noise over residential areas, and “partners” with various aviation officials to reduce jet noise, Commission Executive Director Jeanette Camacho said by email.

The group, which meets quarterly at a massive u-shaped table near O’Hare, was created in 1996, with the only city seat at that time occupied by the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, Camacho said. It was not until 2011— six years after O’Hare’s dramatic runway changes were approved — that seats were added for the 36th, 38th, 39th, 41st and 45th wards.

Asked if the Noise Commission had any real power, its chairwoman, Arlene Mulder, said the group had “influence’’ — as well as the ability to ask questions, get answers and collect important data about O’Hare jet noise.

“We don’t decide soundproofing,’’ Mulder said, because which homes get it is determined by ‘noise contour’ lines set by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, she said, the commission does work with and help homeowners selected for sound insulation.

Mulder declined to respond to calls from FAIR that she step down. But she noted that the commission has urged the FAA to re-examine its criteria for sound insulation, and the agency is finally doing so.

“We have worked hard,’’ Mulder said.

However, Charlier accused the commission of inaction, saying citizens show up and complain, and the commission “does nothing.’’

Even if the 40th Ward becomes the sixth with a seat on the Noise Commission, the group would still be suburban dominant.

Twenty-nine suburbs, Cook County, Chicago and 16 school districts also have seats. FAIR says the 33rd 35th, 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th and 50th Wards also should get seats, as well as any newly-impacted suburbs.

The current suburban-heavy composition doesn’t mean the commission won’t listen to Chicago or its concerns, said Mulder.

“If you think we will ever not support people in Chicago, we will — just like we support each other,’’ Mulder said. “Their voice will be heard. Nobody will be against them.’’

Emanuel last week took his third action since July to address rising — and record — beefs about jet noise that has bombarded areas east and west of O’Hare after an October change in flight paths.

The mayor also has promised to establish eight more city and suburban noise monitors to gather jet noise data — and tapped O’Connor to be among those who decide where such monitors will be placed. And, he’s urged federal officials to expedite their re-examination of the criteria to qualify for sound insulation.

O’Connor said he is not joining the Commission to bring soundproofing to the 40th Ward. But as long as some 40th Ward residents are “struggling with aircraft noise,’’ O’Connor said, “my community should and will be represented.’’

Even though there’s “no doubt” the 40th Ward is closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline than to O’Hare, O’Connor said portions of his ward are affected by new flight paths. That’s because, about 70 percent of the year, even planes from as far as California fly past O’Hare and toward the lake before heading into the airport from over the city.

Separately, O’Connor said, he also has been working with Emanuel’s office, aldermen of other affected wards, suburban mayors and the city department of aviation on how to address the new jet noise.

“We’re looking at pretty much any option on the table that will help reduce the noise for our citizens,” O’Connor said. That includes changing flight distributions per runway, he said.

The 40th Ward development is the latest indication that the fight against jet noised triggered by the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program is finally gaining steam, some say.

“It’s August. Almost one year after the new runways. Rahm Emanuel has now recognized there’s a problem,’’ said Norridge Mayor James Chmura.

“I think he’s becoming more interested.’’

U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley (D-Il.) has advocated for new soundproofing criteria and expansion of “Fly Quiet” rules that encourage night-time pilots to fly over less-densely populated areas.

Quigley and two other Democratic U.S. Reps — Jan Schakowsky and Tammy Duckworth — also have written the FAA to ask for new hearings on O’Hare jet noise and a new environmental impact study. Their request followed Chicago Sun-Times disclosures that legally-required FAA public hearings on the airport overhaul’s environmental impact were not held in any areas due for the worst jet noise.

And, questions about O’Hare jet noise will be before thousands of voters on Nov. 4. Chicago, Norridge, Wood Dale, Itasca, Bensenville and Park Ridge plan to put advisory O’Hare questions on their November ballots. Other suburbs also are considering such a move.

The action stems from an $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program intent on switching O’Hare from dependence on mostly diagonal, criss-crossing runways to mostly parallel ones running east-west. The goal is to decrease delays in all weather and increase O’Hare capacity by what could be 90,000 more flights a year.

Another parallel runway is due to open next year. Under the plan, yet a second would be added and a third extended by 2020, although funding for that part of the project is uncertain.

If the overhaul comes to full fruition, Noise Commission members of at least five suburbs with runways now pointed at their communities would see those runways decommissioned. However, Norridge’s Chmura doubted rearranging commission seats would be worthwhile, given that the commission has “no authority.’’

“The fact is, the FAA does what they want to do,’’ Chmura said.

Meanwhile, completion of the O’Hare Modernization Program would mean 98.9 percent of all daytime arrivals and 99.6 percent of nighttime arrivals would use parallel runways that are pointed right at Chicago, FAA data in the agency’s final environmental impact study indicates.

“As the O’Hare Modernization Program moves forward, it is imperative that the makeup of the [O’Hare Noise Compatibility] Commission reflect all residents potentially affected by aircraft noise,’’ Emanuel said in a news release about the 40th Ward Commission seat.

The City Council and Noise Commission must both approve the new 40th Ward seat. Mulder expected approval.

Susan D’Alessandro, a 40th Ward resident and FAIR member who lobbied O’Connor to get the 40th Ward a commission seat, said her Peterson Park home saw some flights previously, but they were much higher and far less frequent.

Now, she said, often hundreds of flights fly over her home per day, to the point that “We have to stop conversation in our house if we have our windows open. To sleep at night, I have to wear earplugs.’’

Said D’Alessandro, “I’m very grateful to Ald. O’Connor for following through. I feel hopeful.’’


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