AOPA files suit against Chicago and FAA to stop closure of Chicago’s downtown Meigs Field
The city of Chicago Council today voted 41-7 to close Meigs Airport at the end of September 1996.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, with six other plaintiffs, immediately filed suit in federal court against the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, and the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent closure of Meigs Field airport. In addition to AOPA, the lawsuit has significant financial support from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and the National Business Aircraft Association.
“Chicago made binding, legal commitments to the citizens of the United States that it would operate an airport on Northerly Island,” said AOPA President Phil Boyer. “We’re asking the court to force Chicago to honor its agreements.”
The 47-page complaint, filed this afternoon in U.S. District Court for the northern district of Illinois, alleges six counts of illegal activity by the city of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and FAA. The suit seeks an immediate restraining order to stop Chicago from closing Meigs Field.
Causes of action
AOPA and the other plaintiffs, ranging from regional corporate and business interests to Chicago residents, contend that closing the airport would violate the U.S. Constitution as well as state and federal law. The points of law in question:
- Violation of state and federal permits
The original expansion of Northerly Island required Chicago to get state and Army Corps of Engineers permits for the express purpose of building and operating an airport. The suit contends Chicago may not legally use the island for another purpose without authorization from the state and the Department of Defense.
- National Environmental Policy Act
The suit alleges that closing Meigs could significantly affect the environment, both at Northerly Island and at Midway Airport. Meigs runway removal could expose Lake Michigan to hazardous substances. Diversion of Meigs traffic to Midway would increase noise and air pollution for the neighborhoods that surround Midway, compared to Meigs’ approach paths over unpopulated areas and Lake Michigan.
The FAA has previously acknowledged that Meigs’ closure will require an environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency has not yet conducted an EIS.
- Unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce and navigation
The plaintiffs claim closure would violate the Commerce Clause (Article 6, Clause 2) of the U.S. Constitution by materially interfering with interstate commerce and navigation. Noting that 80 percent of Meigs passengers travel to or from other states, the suit says closing Meigs would cause substantial inconvenience and burden to interstate commerce.
- Violation of the public trust
Plaintiffs contend the Chicago Park District holds title to Northerly Island subject to the public trust. Substantial portions of the island exist only because the city and the Park District were granted use of public land and navigable waters for the purpose of operating an airport. Closing Meigs violates that trust.
- Breach of contractual agreements
Both the state of Illinois and the federal government granted funds to Chicago for the improvement of Meigs Field. Grant agreements require operation of the airport until the year 2009. In grant applications, the city promised to obtain land lease or title to operate the airport through the life of the grants.
While the city of Chicago now claims it must close the airport upon expiration of its lease with the Chicago Park District September 30, the suit contends that the city and the Park District colluded to prevent an extension of the lease.
The plaintiffs also contend the Park District has no right or power to refuse lease extension for Meigs Field operation due to agreements made for state and federal permits.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to issue an immediate temporary restraining order prohibiting Chicago and the FAA from closing Meigs until the suit can be tried.
“Closing Meigs Field is a national issue, with impact on the entire aviation infrastructure,” said AOPA’s Boyer. “This suit could set national precedent. On behalf of taxpayers who have funded airports across the United States, we will take this suit to the highest levels.”
Since 1980, AOPA has been actively involved in efforts to preserve Chicago’s Meigs Field as an airport. Initiatives by Chicago officials to close this valuable downtown airport began under Mayor Jane Byrne’s administration. At that time, the FAA was adamant in its opposition to close Meigs.
The concept of closing Meigs once again arose in 1993 when Mayor Daley floated the concept of converting Meigs to a park. And again, AOPA and other associations began to question the mayor’s understanding of the value of a downtown airport to the city’s economy.
Recent efforts by the association have included full-page advertisements in the Southtown Daily, radio interviews on WGN radio with AOPA President Phil Boyer, the towing of a banner during the Democratic National Convention with the message “Decision 96—Keep Meigs Airport Open.”
Two weeks ago, AOPA President Phil Boyer and the association’s general counsel, John Yodice, met with and retained the services of prominent Chicago attorney Richard Phelan to bring suit against the city should the city council move to close Meigs Field on September 11, 1996.
Write to the mayor at: Mayor Richard M. Daley, City Hall, 121 North Lasalle St., Chicago, IL 60602.
September 12, 1996