Minneapolis, Minn. — Airplane noise isn't the kind of thing that ends abruptly with a boundary on a map. In recent years, the Metropolitan Airports Commission has given new doors, windows, and central air conditioning to more than 7,500 homes most exposed to noise. Those in zones just a little farther away were always supposed to get something -- after all, the difference between 65 and 64 decibels is really a technicality to the average ear.
Many of those in these 60-64 decibel neighborhoods who jammed the MAC chambers Monday had expected the whole package. Sue Geusnard bought her south Minneapolis home in 1999.
"I was told by my Realtor, and by the MAC, that our house and our neighborhood would be mitigated," she told the commission. "Please don't tell us this was all fuzzy. You told us time and time and time again that you would follow through with your commitment to our community."
Most commissioners don't see that same commitment. By a 12-3 vote, they advanced a proposal that offers only subsidized air conditioning for the homes in question. Homeowners would pay 10 to 50 percent of the cost, depending on their noise level. The plan would cost an estimated $32 million -- about one-fifth what many residents say was promised.
But commissioners say after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the money is needed for more pressing security matters -- like a multimillion-dollar baggage handling facility.
"I gave myself the 'Can I look at myself in the mirror, can I sleep at night?' test," said Commissioner Kari Berman, who stepped out from behind the commissioners' table to address the crowd. "I think that what's being offered here is something that will hopefully help those homeowners who need the help, and allow the MAC to continue to preserve its resources and be able to have an airport that's safe and that's functional for all of us."
At least one commissioner who voted against the measure sees different motives at work. Daniel Boivin accused other commissioners of acting at the behest of the airport's biggest tenant, Northwest Airlines.
We're telling this community right now that it's about security. It's intellectual dishonesty, folks, and we all know it. We're doing it because Northwest Airlines needs to save money.
"We're telling this community right now that it's about security, that we can't pay for this stuff because we have additional security concerns. It's intellectual dishonesty, folks, and we all know it," Boivin said. "We all know why we're doing it. We're doing it because Northwest Airlines needs to save money."
The noise abatement program is paid for by the ticket fees passengers pay to Northwest and other airlines. Money not spent on noise abatement might go to improve the airport, or the fees could be reduced.
A Northwest government affairs team observed the meeting, but did not participate. The airline released a statement, calling the MAC's action a "compromise (which) will work to serve the best interests of all who have a stake in Minnesota's economic health."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told commissioners they were reneging on another compromise made eight years ago. In 1996, officials decided to expand the airport in its present location rather than build a new, more expensive one outside the city. Rybak says that deal included an agreement to address noise and other quality-of-life issues.
As the airport reaches new limits on growth -- and looks to expand service in smaller, reliever airports -- Rybak says the MAC could suffer a credibility problem in other neighborhoods and cities.
"If they think about expanding that airport, and they see the promises that are broken here -- think about expansions into St. Cloud, expansions into Rochester, and think about what this says to other folks in other places," Rybak told the commission.
Commissioner Thomas Foley asked Rybak: If noise abatement is so important, would Minneapolis be willing to chip in?
"Mr. Commissioner, absolutely not," Rybak said. "The one thing we plan to invest in is a lawsuit to keep this commission to its word."
Commissioners stressed this was not final approval of the proposal. It will be the subject of a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 9.