Residents Speak Out as City Prepares to Explore Feasibility of a Federal Customs Facility at Long Beach Airport

Residents hold up signs supporting the current noise ordinance at a March 2015 City Council meeting. Photo by Jason Ruiz

After months of placing the future of a potential federal customs facility on hold, the Long Beach City Council will again revisit the topic Tuesday night. At the meeting, it will vote on whether or not to direct city staff to explore the feasibility of installing such a checkpoint.

The feasibility study being added to this week’s agenda has again riled defenders of the airport’s noise ordinance. These individuals voiced their opinions to Mayor Robert Garcia and the other council members in a letter sent last week.

In the letter, members of the California Heights, Country Club Manor and Los Cerritos Neighborhood Associations jointly presented their concerns over the addition of a federal customs facility.

CHNA President Hugh Little likened the potential addition of a customs facility as “painting a target” on the noise ordinance that the city has had in place since 1995. The ordinance currently allows for a minimum of 41 commercial flights and 25 commuter flights per day, but places restrictions on average noise levels and hours of operation at the airport.

Although the ordinance is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive in the country, it has faltered in the face of every legal challenge it’s faced since 1981.

Giving another corporation incentive to potentially challenge it is something that has the neighborhood associations and residents around the airport nervous, as any change to the ordinance could result in a less restrictive federal law supplanting it.

“The concern as we see is it that the introduction of a customs facility changes the desirability of Long Beach Airport,” Little said. “Right now, JetBlue kind of has all the flights they want locked up. If they have that customs facility, the concern is that that companies that don’t have slots at the airport here might challenge the ordinance to get in.”

Little’s group also called into the question the financial viability of the facility, and points to a 2013 assessment made under the watch of former Airport Director Mario Rodriguez that characterized a customs facility as something that would “not further enhance the airport’s financial position.”

In a separate email obtained by the Post, leaders from the Los Cerritos Neighborhood Association Board further elaborated on their opposition to the agenda item. Their letter specifies why they are encouraging those who feel strongly about the issue to attend Tuesday night’s meeting.

“Opposing international flights was a difficult decision,” the LCNA email read. “The Board came to the conclusion that the risk of unintended consequences is just too high to allow a change. Historically, every time the Noise Ordinance has been legally challenged, it has lost and each settlement weakened it. Building and staffing a Federal inspection service facility at Long Beach Airport could put us on the path to doubling, tripling or even more the current number of flights that fly over us each day.”

The original request from JetBlue in February of this year for the city to apply to the United States Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection seeking approval to designate the airport as a port of entry was put on hold by the council, after it voted to wait until 60 days after the empty seat for the Fourth District council member was filled.

The clock on the customs facility started again when Daryl Supernaw won the election and was sworn into office May 5.

Although Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga—the representative for the district of where the neighborhood associations who wrote the letter are located—was one of the council members who drafted the delay for the customs facility item, Little said his group has received no indication as to which direction their councilman will vote.

However, opponents of the facility may have scored a victory with Supernaw’s election. His wife, Cheryl, was part of a neighborhood group that fought for the original noise ordinance to be put in place.

Eighth District Councilman Al Austin has been the most outspoken member of the council when it comes to the airport and its noise ordinance. He's gone so far as to author an open letter in which he called for the city’s focus to remain on balancing the success of the airport and the quality of life for those impacted most by its activity. He also called for the council to be re-educated on the noise ordinance during a special study session held earlier this year.

When airport figures started to decline in the wake of the council’s vote, most of which was attributed to JetBlue’s cutting of flights to and from Long Beach, members of the Airport Advisory Commission raised the idea that the airline could be manipulating its schedule to financially pressure the city into a decision. The airline has since refuted that idea, but when faced with that question earlier this year, Austin said his vote would not be pressured.

“I'm going to make informed decisions that are best for Long Beach,” Austin said. “As a reminder, I work for those who elected me, not for the board of directors of any airline.”

If the council votes in favor of the feasibility study, city staff would initiate a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or a Request for Proposal (RFP) process for an industry expert to help guide them in the process.

The cost of the study would not be known until the completion of the process. Still, the process could take years to complete and there are no guarantees the federal government would approve Long Beach Airport as a port of entry. 

Little concedes that while his group can’t prove that noise ordinance will be challenged, the city can’t provide assurances that it won’t be. He also acknowledged that while Tuesday’s vote isn’t the end of the process, it’s an important step toward what will ultimately become of JetBlue’s request.

Ultimately, Little admitted the decision will be a financial one. He said if the city chases the “short-term dollars” that JetBlue and the customs facility could offer, it might lose out on the “long-term dollars” provided by property taxes provided by the residents that call Long Beach home. Declining property values are something that the neighborhood associations fear could result from an increase in traffic at the airport.

“We are not anti-corporate or by any stretch anti-JetBlue, we just don’t see the benefit to the city and to the neighborhood by this proposal or this arrangement,” Little said. “We’re not fighting this because Jetblue is an evil corporation that must be stopped, we’re fighting it because we don’t think this is good for the city and our neighborhoods.”

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