As the Atlanta airport launches an expansion that will allow for more flights, expanded cargo operations at night and eventually a sixth runway, some residents who live nearby say relentless growth is making their lives miserable.
“The noise is excruciating,” said Burness Davis, who lives in the Clayton County community of Conley. “It’s just horrible. It affects us daily.”
College Park residents voted this month in favor of a referendum to urge Congress to direct the Federal Aviation Administration to develop new noise exposure measures and authorize new funding for insulation in affected areas.
“We don’t want to shut down the airport,” said city councilman Ambrose Clay, a leader in the effort. “We’re not coming out with torches and pitchforks. We’re just trying to get noise insulation for our neighbors.”
Hartsfield-Jackson International already handles nearly 2,500 arrivals and departures daily, with a takeoff about every 45 seconds during busy periods.
In some of the most affected surrounding areas, where cheap apartment rents are the main draw, noise can disrupt sleep, affect small children and prompt residents to regularly shout in conversations to be heard over the roar of jet engines.
The city of Atlanta, which owns and operates the airport, is determined to maintain its position in the industry and is taking the first steps in a $6 billion master plan modernization and expansion.
Prior expansions have cleared out entire neighborhoods, such as Mountain View to the east of the airport. The latest plan would put the sixth runway on the existing airfield, rather than having to significantly expand the airport footprint and displace residents, but it still is expected to require the clearing of hotels southwest of the airport.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also wants to attract more cargo flights at night, when the airport is now mostly quiet. The airport is building new cargo facilities on the south side of the airport.
To Davis, cargo is an unwelcome nighttime visitor. “When do we get a rest? Because we can’t sleep at night,” she said.
Not their problem
Most residents who live next to the airport are not constituents of Reed or Atlanta City Council members.
“That’s the crux of the whole battle,” said Mike Flannagan, a landowner and developer in Sterling, Va., who previously owned apartment developments in College Park. “There’s nobody in the city council of Atlanta that’s got to look a College Park resident in the eye and say, ‘Hey man, how am I doing?’ ”
Flannagan sued Atlanta over airport noise issues and lost, withdrawing his lawsuit last summer and selling his properties, ending a five-year fight.
“The noise down there is ridiculous … Everybody down there that’s living in the affected area, they’ve been beat,” Flannagan said. “I would never come back and buy anything on the south side of I-20.”
People who live around airports benefited from newer, quieter aircraft from 1975 through 2000, according to the FAA. But, “Most of the gains from quieter aircraft were achieved by 2000,” the agency says. Future fixes will likely have to be done through policies on development around airports and operational procedures.
A recent noise study Hartsfield-Jackson found little change to be made in the “noise contours” that determine what areas are eligible for noise insulation. The airport says it’s “too early to tell” what the effect of the sixth runway will be on noise.
The airport used to conduct noise monitoring around Hartsfield-Jackson, installing 16 noise monitors in 1996 after a series of hearings for the airport’s master plan at the time.
The airport recently commissioned for the removal of the devices, which are spread around East Point, Hapeville, Atlanta, Forest Park, College Park and unincorporated Clayton, Fulton and DeKalb counties, because the equipment hasn’t been used for years and cannot be used for FAA noise studies.
Hartsfield-Jackson has an ongoing noise insulation program, gradually adding new windows, doors, air conditioning and other measures in homes, offices and apartments. Insulation projects cost about $10-$15 million annually, with 80 percent covered by the federal government. Hartsfield-Jackson said it insulates a few hundred apartment units a year.
“We take the concerns of nearby residents seriously,” Hartsfield-Jackson said in a written statement.
But many older homes around Hartsfield-Jackson had noise insulation done in past decades, which prevents them from qualifying for upgraded insulation or to account for the tremendous increase in flights since then.
The referendum approved by College Park voters aims to spark a new insulation offensive. Councilman Clay is a member of a N.O.I.S.E., the National Association to Insure a Sound Controlled Environment, a coalition of local elected officials working to mitigate airport noise.
“We’re getting a lot of traction that I never thought we would get,” Clay said.
The College Park vote, he said, is “effectively a petition that somebody can take to Congress and say, ‘Hey, there’s a little town in the Atlanta area that is heavily pushing for you to change this standard.’”
Clay aims to ride a wave of growing frustration nationally. Improved satellite-based technology allows aircraft to be spaced more tightly — which can increase noise and has led to complaints around the country.
A Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus has formed, with members including U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta. Among their goals: A study to measure the health effects of prolonged exposure to high levels of aviation noise.
Some say residents who live near airports and complain about the noise should have known what they were in for.
A recent report by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University said a majority of “not in my backyard” complaints about airport noise come from “a small number of loud objectors.” For example, one residence generated 6,852 of 8,760 complaints about noise at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2015, the report said.
Hartsfield-Jackson, which has logged 143 noise complaints so far this year vs. 107 for all of 2015, said about half of the complaints it receives come from two people.
The Mercatus report contends: “It would be a mistake to allow the preferences of a vocal but minuscule minority of citizens, however sympathetic their circumstances, to impede much-needed improvements in aviation.”
Davis, the Conley resident, sees it differently as Hartsfield-Jackson expands.
“I know they want progress. Everybody wants progress,” she said. “I just don’t think they’re considering the people that they’re affecting doing this.”
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