The Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to study a package of recommendations put together by local politicians that if approved, could substantially reduce noise and environmental impacts related to the Sonoma County Airport’s proposed expansion.

The FAA has agreed to study several issues over the next two years. Included in their review will be an evaluation of the possibility of moving the commercial flight path over less populated areas, implementation of Optimized Profile Descent (OPD) and higher elevated approaches for landings, requiring Navigation Performance Approaches, and evaluating the flight pattern that private pilots use while flying into the airport.

“This is unprecedented,” said 4th District Supervisor Mike McGuire. “We are extremely grateful for the partnership with the FAA. They are going to study all of those issues that residents have had concerns about for many, many years.”

According to a press release issued by The Board of Supervisors, the process will include establishing a high level FAA working group that will evaluate potential mitigation concepts, test the concepts, evaluate potential environmental considerations, and work with the commercial carrier for implementation strategies.

McGuire said the process would include public workshops/meetings to educate residents and receive their feedback on any proposed policies.

Local officials pressed for the study group during a recent trip to Washington D.C. and visits to regional FAA offices. McGuire said the lobbying effort was a joint endeavor with the Windsor Town Council and Congressman Mike Thompson.

“This was a partnership with Congressman Thompson, the Town of Windsor and working hand in hand with the neighbors,” he said. “This is an incredible win for all involved. We’re a relatively small airport and for the FAA to agree to study these potential mitigation measure is an incredible accomplishment. And I do believe we are going to see improved conditions that will protect the quality of life for those that are in the landing path of the airport.”

All of the items to be studied are designed to address long-standing concerns regarding the flight path of planes and the level of noise at the airport. Some ideas rely on utilizing additional technology while others amount to procedural changes.

Navigation Performance Approaches use technology to provide commercial pilots to approach with a narrower and consistent landing pattern that mitigates fly over of neighborhoods, thus reducing sound impacts. McGuire said some planes are already equipped for the system.

OPD is also an established method of reducing noise. Airport manager Jon Stout said the OPD system has become increasingly common around the country because it reduces noise, pollution and fuel consumption. Under the current system, planes descent into the airport via a staircase-like series of maneuvers but OPD allows planes to make a smooth entry. “The theory is they will have a maximum angle so they won’t need to use power,” said Stout. As it’s powering the engine that creates noise, the new system means quieter landings for neighbors.  “If they can keep the power off, into an idle mode, it’s significantly quieter.”

Local officials acknowledged the FAA has only agreed to study the issues, but said some of the recommendations, such as adopting the OPD procedure, were likely to pass.

“I do not think FAA would get into a process like this without bringing forward recommendations that would help mitigate the concerns of the community over the next 18-24 months,” said McGuire.

The airport’s $84 million expansion project will separate the two runways and allow for additional flights into the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. The work will require conversion of 59 acres of farmland as well as the acquisition of an additional 85 acres. The type of aircraft serving Sonoma County would change from the current Bombardier Q400 with a noise impact of 62.5 decibels to a jet with an impact of 68 or 68.2 decibels.

Supporters of the plan say an improved airport boosts economic activity countywide but detractors say it will decrease quality of life for nearby residents.

Officials who worked on the FAA deal said the proposed recommendations address many of the residential concerns while allowing the airport to meet it’s economic potential.

Congressman Mike Thompson said his office would continue to monitor the process and address citizen concerns. “The airport project is going to put people back to work and make Sonoma County more accessible to business,” he said. “As we move forward with this important economic development project, I will continue working with county leaders and the FAA to make sure our community’s needs are heard and addressed.”

Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge said the study should benefit local residents. “As Mayor, I’ve convened two meetings in the past eight years with the FAA and the Sonoma County Airport manager, with help from Congressman Thompson’s office,” she said. “We believe those efforts have laid the foundation for the successful working relationship we have with the FAA today.  This is great for Windsor residents.”

Supervisor Mike McGuire, who has spearheaded the effort to address community’s concerns by working closely with Congressman Thompsons Office and the FAA commented, “This is a huge win for all involved especially the residents of Windsor because we are moving forward with a balanced approach. We are advancing the safety and improvement projects and the many jobs it will create while protecting the quality of life for the communities that neighbor the Airport.”

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