Despite an abundance of pushback and risk, local governments that sponsor airports continue to make zoning and development plans that prioritize revenue over pilots and community members.
Lawsuits, noise concerns on the part of local citizens and airport users alike, as well as potential violations of FAA grant assurances are just some of the issues that airport sponsors could face when taking a short-sighted, tax revenue-based approach to prospective development near airports.
Developments built without fully incorporating FAA safety-related guidance based on FAR Part 77 are potentially endangering pilots flying in the vicinity. Additionally, residents living near new developments surrounding airports are put at risk for probable aircraft incidents, accidents, and noise.
In one tragic example of an ill-advised development built near an airport, a pilot died when her aircraft collided with exhaust stacks during a landing attempt at Burley Airport in Idaho in April 2022. The pilot’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit naming the airport sponsor (the city of Burley) responsible for allowing construction of the exhaust stacks near the airport.
The FAA has published several documents intended to help prevent these tragic outcomes, including Advisory Circular 150/5190-4B (Airport Land Use Compatibility Planning) that describes the major incompatible land uses that conflict with or are impacted by operations at local public-use airports. It also highlights compatible land use development tools and resources for airport sponsors to utilize if they want to protect communities surrounding airports from adverse effects associated with airport operations.
Among other land use planning topics, the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook does a particularly good job of providing empirical data depicting historical aircraft impacts near airports (Exhibits 1 and 2).
Notwithstanding the fact that in virtually every instance airports were established and operational long before the development, once residential developments are approved in close proximity to airports, noise complaints regularly ensue. Although avigation easement agreements provide the sponsor one form of nominal protection from lawsuits, they are by no means ironclad.
On June 15, a Colorado appeals court upheld an October 2021 ruling that a limitation event related to increased noise levels had occurred, which would terminate the avigation easement agreements of approximately 1,000 Rock Creek HOA residents—exposing Jefferson County (the airport sponsor) to potential liability risks.
Healthy airports and robust airport communities are in the best interest of the general aviation pilot population, and AOPA is committed to maintaining these airports. We recently worked with the Washington Department of Transportation Aviation Division and the FAA Airport District office to urge a pause in the approval of a mixed-used development plan near Pearson Field being considered by the city of Vancouver, Washington. This mixed-use development plan raised concerns about aviator and resident safety, noise, and future potential lawsuit concerns. The city is also continuing to pursue development of the master plan despite a reminder from the FAA that Vancouver has FAA grant assurance obligations.
If you believe land development may be an emerging issue at your airport, pay attention to airport sponsor meetings and contact your AOPA regional manager or your local Airport Support Network volunteer if you become aware of plans for significant development or zoning that may be in close proximity to and in conflict with your home airport.
Thoughtful compatible land use policy is best practice for ensuring that the relationship between the airport and the community is strong, thereby providing an airport for our members to use for years to come.