Residents hold signs opposing changes to Long Beach Airport. Photo: Jason Ruiz
Approving the construction of a federal custom’s facility at Long Beach Airport (LGB) was already going to be a lengthy process, and at Tuesday night’s regular meeting city council voted to delay that process a little bit longer, choosing to postpone any further action by City staff regarding the proposed facility until 60 days after the vacant 4th District council seat is filled.
The decision didn’t come without some back and forth from the council on the matter that was considered by some to be a formality to be approved. The discussion, which lasted over two hours and lead to a 4-3 decision to postpone, rivaled the length of a special study session held February 17 to inform the council on how the current noise ordinance works at the airport.
The vote ensures that no action will be undertaken by City staff until 60 days after the special election to fill the vacated 4th District council seat is completed, giving the newly-elected council member time to get up to speed on the topic. The original motion called for a 90 day window of time but was negotiated down to 60.
“I know this is an incredibly important issue to a lot of people and it’s important for us to hear all points of view on any issue before the council,” Mayor Robert Garcia said after the vote. “I know it’s contentious, I know it’s emotional and I know for a lot of you have been in this airport conversation long before any of us were seated at this current council.”
Last week, just days after that special study session, one that outlined the rare powers given the city by the current ordinance and how any changes could render it void, JetBlue formally announced its desire to build a federal customs checkpoint in a letter sent to the airport. The move could open up the airport to international travel, a potential boon for the city’s bottom line and burden for residents in the neighboring communities.
The motion was brought to the floor by councilmen Al Austin and Roberto Uranga. Austin has been the most outspoken member of the council, writing an open letter last year in which he called for the city to protect the noise ordinance in place and also served as the catalyst for the special study session held last month. Austin said that it’s troubling that discussions have already taken place over the past two years without the direction of the council and given that there isn’t full representation, now would be a good time to “cool the jets” on the issue.
“Many residents who live in the 4th district live in the direct flight path of the airport,” Austin said. “And I believe that it’s undemocratic to move forward with this issue in anyway when such a key district does not have a voice or vote on the city council. We must also give time for that representative, who will be elected in just over a month, to have time to be brought up to speed. There’s a lot that comes at you when you’re a new city council member.”
Uranga echoed the concerns of Austin and added that the point for waiting until after the election is to ensure that every district gets input on the study. Carrying out a study before the election and without council direction would take some power away from the council and make it a more staff-oriented direction.
“It’s a council-driven process as opposed to a staff-driven process,” Uranga said. “We provide guidance and direction to staff as to what we want to see in the study. That’s why we want to wait for an election to take place.”
The 4th District, one of the communities that would be largely impacted by any change in noise levels or increase in air traffic, has been without representation since the seat was vacated when Patrick O’Donnell joined the State Assembly in December 2014. The special election to replace O’Donnell is set for April 14 and the council has directed City Manager Pat West to delay any requests pertaining to the facility until June at the earliest.
Not everyone on the council shared the sentiment that holding off action on JetBlue’s proposal was in the best interest of the city. Arguing that the process, which by some estimates could take as much as three years, is already long enough, and trying to assuage the fears of non-representation in the vote, Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said that she and her colleagues represent everyone who lives and visits this city, adding that any study performed by the city wouldn’t return to the council until well after the 4th District seat was filled.
"This is a three year process," Mungo said. "Any delay of another three months is pandering to this crowd because it’s insignificant in this plan, which will take an exuberant [sic] amount of time."
The large crowd of community members in attendance last night, many of whom call the 4th District home and were on hand to protest the proposal to build the facility, didn’t take kindly to Mungo’s remarks. As each person spoke during public comment, they held signs that read “We ♥ LB Airport” and “Leave it Alone” with the words “International Terminal” encased in a prohibition sign. They shared concerns ranging from noise issues to increased traffic and pollution, with the one galvanizing issue being the residents' desire for representation.
“We don’t need an international airport,” said one 4th District resident. “LAX is not that far, Orange County is not that far, it’s ridiculous that we would want to have bigger flights, noisier flights come into our community. It doesn’t make any sense […]. There is nothing that controls this airport and all you’re going to do is make it bigger and get it more out of control for the people that live in the flight path. We need to be represented before anything goes on.”
David Lewis, a 7th District resident who has lived in the city for 20 years expressed fears that now that talks have been put in motion by the airport, there’s little that can be done to stop the building of the custom’s facility. He said that like the Port, the airport is an economic driver for the city and like the Port, nothing is going to slow down the commerce rolling through it.
“Now JetBlue wants to have an international terminal at the airport and we all know what that means,” Lewis said. “It’s going to mean more revenue for JetBlue, more revenue for Long Beach, but at what price? There comes a time when we have to put not our health, but our children’s health first before revenue.”
Former Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, an outspoken defender of the airport’s noise ordinance, discussed at length how a vote on the Civic Center wouldn’t have been taken without representation from the Downtown districts, the 3rd District was not left voiceless on the Belmont Plaza Pool project, and so on. Every district in the city needs a leader to advocate on their behalf, she added.
“Together the nine districts make up our vibrant, diverse city of Long Beach,” Gabelich said. “What happens to one district will in someway impact the others. Creating ample time for the next fourth district council person to settle in allows for each one of you to better understand the history of our airport. It gives you time to consider the pros and cons and the benefits and the risks.”
The process is expected to take several years and there are no guarantees that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would even approve the airport's application to become a port of entry. West said that prior to submitting that application, a study that could take as long as five months to conduct would need to be carried out by city staff before it would be returned to council without a recommendation. The aim of the study would be to determine if expanding the airport would be a good or bad move for the city.
In its letter to new Airport Direct Bryant Francis, JetBlue stated that it would not move to modify the current noise ordinance—something that would potentially lead to the city losing control of airport noise and defaulting to the less stringent federal law—and that it would only utilize its allotted flight slots. The letter also described the airline as a “model corporate citizen” of the city and a “steadfast supporter of the noise ordinance,” despite having racked up nearly $5 million in fines since 2003 for criminal violations of that noise ordinance.
Speaking on behalf of the airline, Rob Mitchell, Manager of Government and Airport Affairs for JetBlue, said that postponing a request by a “solid corporate citizen” without justification would unfairly slow the fact-finding studies and lengthy conversations that need to start now to carry out the project in a timely manner.
“If the city truly wants to be an international city, a progressive city and a pro-job city, then it must at least explore all the opportunities to do so,” Mitchell said.