A feasibility study to explore whether or not an installation of a proposed federal inspection service facility at Long Beach Airport would be a good move for the city was approved by the city council last night in a 6-3 vote.
The motion passed after nearly two hours of mostly civil arguments, between those arguing that such a facility would spell doom for the city’s noise ordinance and those supporting the airport’s aspirations of flying internationally.
The vote comes as a moratorium on a vote regarding JetBlue’s formal request for the facility that was made in February expired. The expiration occurred after newly elected Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw had been in office for the recommended 60 day window voted on by the council in April.
In granting city staff the ability to move forward with its bid process for an outside firm to conduct the study, the city council made some minor additions to the original motion. The friendly amendments came at the request of Eighth District Councilman, Al Austin who was publicly opposed to the feasibility study. However, he said that if it must go forward, certain additions garnered from public outreach efforts should be included.
With Austin’s amendments, the study will now include a forecast of general aviation and corporate jets expected to use the proposed terminal. It will also include risk assessments for the noise ordinance and mitigation plans for impacted neighborhoods, a security risk assessment from opening the airport up to international travel as well as requiring a series of community outreach meetings.
Still, Austin told his colleagues they should reconsider a “yes” vote, stating that once Pandora’s box is opened it can’t be shut.
“I’ve heard loud and clear from my residents in my district that we don’t want to play a game of Monopoly with one company,” Austin said, referring to JetBlue. “We don’t want Long Beach to be played in that game.”
Austin, who eventually voted against the motion, joined Councilmen Roberto Uranga and Daryl Supernaw in publicly voicing their opposition to the feasibility study. Both the Seventh and Fourth Council Districts, which both men represent respectively, fall in the direct flight path of the airport.
Councilmen Uranga and Supernaw were the other dissenting votes.
Uranga was the subject of petitioning from multiple neighborhood associations in his district prior to Tuesday’s vote. He questioned the city’s ability and resources to carry out another extensive study on the proposed terminal. He also expressed doubts of whether or not opening the airport to international travel would affect the city’s finances outside the bounds of the airport or merely make it a port of entry that travelers would utilize to get to other destinations in the city.
Supernaw followed by stating that while a study seems innocuous, he felt it would be at the least unethical, and at the most, illegal, for him to vote in favor of something that his constituents were vehemently opposed to. After pegging himself as “very pro-business,” Supernaw pointed to JetBlue’s decision to violate the noise ordinance by allowing plane to take off just before 4:00AM late last month as reason to hesitate on publicly vouching for a business in the city.
“You have to wonder if this is what they’re going to do one week before a vote, when maybe they should be on their best behavior," said Supernaw. "It makes me wonder."
The standing room only crowd inside the council chambers was almost evenly split in the number of people speaking in support of the feasibility study and the airport’s efforts to bring international flights to Long Beach and residents holding anti-airport expansion signs and denouncing the motion.
Robert Land, senior vice president of government affairs and associate general counsel for JetBlue, commended those in attendance who were supporting the motion. He especially noted the crew members making an appearance on their own time to speak on behalf of the airline.
Land tried to quell fears that have been circulating on Internet message boards about the impending fall of the city’s noise ordinance if a customs facility is built at the airport. He said he was being “crystal clear’ in stating that JetBlue was firmly committed to the noise ordinance.
“If the FAA believes that a change to the airport would jeopardize the ordinance, we wouldn’t support it,” Land said. “Let me also be clear that JetBlue is not asking you to support a customs facility tonight, we’re not doing that tonight, not yet. We’re simply asking to begin the exploration process to gather the facts through a thorough fact-finding mission.”
Senior Vice President of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Jeremy Harris said that the time had come for the council to show good faith in a “great corporate citizen” that has waited patiently for a decision now that the council was again at full strength. Harris hinted that not doing so could have potential negative impacts on business in the city going forward.
“What type of message will the City of Long Beach send to business and potential businesses if JetBlue’s request is ignored now?” Harris asked. “If we are to become an international city that us and so many of you, quite frankly, continue to promote, we need to at least take a step in that direction.”
Not everyone shared Harris' view.
Jane Nado, a resident of Bixby Knolls and member of the HUSH2 community group dedicated to limiting the airport’s expansion, said that allowing for a customs facility to be built would necessitate another expansion of the airport’s traffic caps. Renewing interest in the airport by opening it to international travel could invite a legal challenge from outside airlines wishing to capitalize on currently non-existent space at Long Beach. She said that the last time council members favored the airport over its citizens, it cost them their seats in City Hall.
“Each and every district could be impacted by future changes to our airport,” Nado said. “This means that each council member and the mayor could have their political futures in jeopardy if they choose not to put the quality of life concerns of the neighborhoods first.”
To many in attendance, the focus shouldn’t have been on whether or not the city could afford to build a customs facility, but whether or not the residents around the airport could afford an increase in flights and the possibility of further weakening the city’s noise ordinance. Since 1981, when the first ordinance was put into place, every time it’s been subject to legal challenges it has lost. It has since expanded from 15 flights per day to more than 65 commuter and commercial flights in 2015.
“Feasibility to me is can it be paid for?” asked Long Beach resident Greg Herweg. “Of course it can be paid for. Everyone already knows that. But is it feasible for our community to be able to absorb more flights?”
Airport Director Bryant Francis said the feasibility study would most likely run about six to seven months and would be “all encompassing,” taking into account not only the feasibility but the facility’s plan and design, projected cost estimate, demand and traffic forecasts and projected financial performance. He wouldn’t elaborate on a projected cost for the study because it hadn’t entered into the bid process and he didn’t want to tip his hand to competitors who might’ve watched last night’s council meeting.
City Manager Pat West assured this study would be more comprehensive than the one conducted in 2013 by former Airport Director Mario Rodriguez, which characterized the proposed terminal as not being able to enhance the airport’s financial position and potentially opening it up to legal and international threats.
Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said by exploring the issue, it will provide a better basis for the council to make a decision on the pros and cons of an international customs facility, including financial and community viability. She also noted that the economic climate now is different from the last time a study was conducted and felt the council should react accordingly.
“What I don’t want is what has happened to us in the past with closed minded city council members that were anti-business and now we have a Costco on every border of our city, we have a Home Depot on every border of our city because we're closed-minded to business,” Mungo said. “At least give everyone a fair shake.”
[Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that Councilman Al Austin voted in favor of the motion and Councilman Dee Andrews voted against it. Austin voted against the motion and Andrews supported it. The error has been corrected.]