By Ted Lipien
Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board Director Tom Van Berkem
Truckee Tahoe Airport Board Director Tom Van Berkem revealed at recent board meetings that he has been getting more complaints from his neighbors at Northstar, as well as from Truckee residents who approach him at local Safeway and Save Mart stores, about the growing problem of loud plane noise in their community.
Local residents, whose little publicized $4.3 million annual property tax subsidy helps to run the airport for its very few and mostly extremely affluent aviation users, are complaining more vigorously than before about growing jet noise in the area long valued for its quiet neighborhoods and undisturbed nature. Many locals and visitors seek Truckee for rest and recreation to get away from busy urban/suburban lifestyle and noisy environments.
Semi-commercial air service to Truckee using private jets and large turboprop planes is a relatively new development. Such plane traffic is projected to grow in the next decade nationwide. Airport officials have not alerted the community to this trend and have not warned local residents that their home values may drop as a result of loud jets and turboprops flying over their neighborhoods.
Despite concerns being expressed recently by Tom Van Berkem and more consistently by another board member and longtime local resident Mary Hetherington, the planning process to build a large jet hangar at the airport is moving ahead at local taxpayers’ expense.
Several local pilots said at a public meeting that such new facilities will definitely help further increase jet and turboprop traffic, but the board had already approved preparation of plans and cost estimates for the jet hangar, although it has not yet ordered its actual construction.
Airport officials either deny that the hangar will bring more jets to Truckee or say they are not sure. Their promotional campaign to sell the hangar to the community failed to present any possible negative impacts because they say they can’t be certain there will be any. In an apparent case of conflict of interest, Airport officials chose the same firm to study what drives plane traffic to the area and to design the new jet hangar, although some independent public opinion survey experts have been also brought in as consultants. It does not appear likely, however, that they will study in depth costs of long-term environmental impact, long-term impact on the quality of life for local residents, and potential negative impact on home values.
Several local pilots said that it does not take much to figure out that making it easier for larger jets to fly to Truckee by building more jet hangars will increase the appeal of the airport to rich plane owners, operators and passengers who put their own convenience ahead of the damage they cause to the environment and the community. These local pilots have also pointed out that Truckee is one of the most dangerous general aviation airports in the country, which raises the question as to why Airport officials are promoting the use of the proposed jet hangar for gatherings of school children, especially since in 2012 a small plane crashed into one of the existing hangars. The airport is believed to be well-managed, but because of its high-altitude location, mountainous terrain and local weather conditions, it is a challenging airport to use for many pilots. There have been nine crashes at or near the airport between 2008 and 2012. Plans for the large jet hangar, which the staff is trying to sell also as a large community hall, are expected to be discussed at the Truckee Tahoe Airport District board meeting on April 22, starting at 4:30pm.
There are numerous, more environmentally friendly alternatives to flying a private jet to a mountain resort town like Truckee, with the commercial Reno airport in an urban setting being one obvious solution. However, more jet and turboprop plane traffic over Truckee neighborhoods is expected in the coming years unless effective actions are taken to encourage private jets to use commercial airports elsewhere. The Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board is not directing the staff to explore promoting use of Reno and other airports as alternative destinations to lessen the impact on the fragile environment of the Truckee-Tahoe region and the town itself.
Tom Van Berkem’s recent comments that this mountain resort community will not able to absorb and tolerate increased plane traffic in the future may be the first signal that community complaints are having some initial impact. But they can only lead to concrete pro-environment actions if pro-quality of life board members representing the majority of the voters who are local residents manage to assert themselves over those who support growth for the benefit of a small number of affluent airport users, some local businesses and special interests groups.
For now, jet traffic noise and community complaints are growing with no end in sight. Two other Truckee Tahoe Airport Disrict Board members believed to have strong ties to local businesses are pushing hard for building more large hangars.
Commercial air travel to Truckee is growing, but it is not air travel the vast majority of Truckee residents can use. Surf Air, which offers semi-commercial service with unlimited private flights starting at $1,750 per month and an initiation fee, has announced new service to Truckee starting May 23 from Burbank, CA. Surf Air already flies to Truckee from several other airports in California. The vast majority of Truckee residents can’t afford such expensive private air travel as offered by “the nation’s first All-You-Can-Fly private membership airline” which uses noisy turboprops. Another company, JetSuite, flies private jets to Truckee at even higher prices and with an even greater and more annoying noise footprint.
At one recent board meeting, Tom Van Berkem noted that there have been o lot of conversations on the board about “people who don’t complain but are annoyed.“ “I get them whenever I go to the Safeway or wherever, Save Mart, or my mailbox. There are a lot of people out there who are annoyed but don’t complain,” Tom Van Berkem said.
Tom Van Berkem also noted that eleven out of nineteen complaints in a recent monthly plane noise report were associated with jets. His recent outspokenness on this issue is potentially significant since he lives in Northstar. Residents of this upper-income community, some of whom could afford to use private jets or other private planes, may hopefully start questioning how their actions or those of their neighbors affect their own quality of life and the environment. This may be a first step to persuading the one-percenters through peer pressure to avoid flying private jets to Truckee and sparing the community their large carbon and noise footprint.
Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board Directors Mary Hetherington and Tom Van Berkem faced by Board President John Jones and Director James Morrison, Northstar California, February 12, 2015. At the meeting Ms. Hetherington said that public sees bullying in Truckee Tahoe Airport boardroom.
At an earlier board meeting, Director Van Berkem joined Director Hetherington in talking about helping to protect the local environment and the character of the area for future generations. He said that this could be done by promoting ecotourism and meeting new demands for travel by encouraging private jet owners and passengers to use the commercial airport in urban Reno instead of flying to Truckee. It was the first time I heard the word “ecotourism” mentioned in four years of attending Truckee Airport board meetings.
Mr. Van Berkem also revealed that in the past he himself would fly a corporate jet to Reno instead of Truckee in order not to disturb his neighbors and to show that he abides by his commitment to protect the fragile environment of the Truckee Tahoe region. He also disclosed at that meeting and at later meetings that his neighbors in Northstar are now often complaining to him about growing jet traffic and plane noise over their homes as they try to relax outdoors.
Mr. Van Berkem emphasized his view that the board and the staff should consider the alternatives to facilitating the growth of Truckee airport jet traffic out of concern not only for current home owners, but especially for future generations, their children and grandchildren. He said that the idea that new residents and tourists would not come to the area if they don’t fly their private planes to Truckee is simply not true.
Truckee Airport Board Director James Morrison
Neither Board President John Jones nor Director James Morrison, both of whom are believed to be pilots and local businessmen, expressed support for Mr. Van Berkem’s idea of encouraging private jet traffic to use the nearby commercial airport and continue their travel to the Truckee Tahoe area from Reno by shuttle bus or by car. There are very few if any small resort towns in the United States or in Europe that have commercial or general aviation airports almost next to their town center as does Truckee.
But responding to Mr. Van Berkem’s idea, Director Morrison said that “Some people wouldn’t come, Tom.”
“When was the last time you got on a shuttle bus like that?,” Mr. Morrison asked.
Mr. Van Berkem replied that he would use a bus if the bus service were frequent and reliable. If there is no bus service, it is easy to rent a car in Reno.
John Jones, Truckee Airport Board President
But in a move with potentially highly significant consequences for residents and the environment, Board President John Jones called in January for either scrapping or modifying a 2004 Truckee Tahoe Airport District resolution which requires initiating a process to control the tempo and times of airport operations when the proportion of jets exceeds 15% of the total. The threshold has already been met, but Mr. Jones claims that this is still open to interpretation. At the same meeting in January, Mr. Morrison tried to convince a local resident who complained about plane noise that private jets are now quieter. Critics dismissed such changes as marginal, as jets continue to top the list of the loudest and most disturbing sources of noise for local communities.
The Airport Board has so far taken no action on Mr. Jones’ call to scrap or modify the 2004 Resolution. At the same time, the board has taken no concrete actions to discourage jet traffic and lower its overall impact on the community despite calls from Director Hetherington and Director Van Berkem. At a recent board meeting, Mr. Jones tried to define the airport’s “stakeholders” by the amount of their property tax contributions. He was challenged on this point by Ms. Hetherington, while a community member observed that in a democracy the only stakeholder are resident voters, individually and as a group, who elect board members and approve a property tax subsidy for the airport; everyone else is a special interest group.
Truckee Airport Board Director Lisa Wallace
Another Director, Lisa Wallace who is the Truckee River Watershed Council Executive Director, is in an uncomfortable position of working for an environmental organization which has accepted “Green Bucks” donations from the Truckee Airport tied directly to the amount of jet fuel sold by the Airport. The Truckee Tahoe Airport Board of Directors approved an automatic collection of $1 Green Buck donation per $100 in gross sales on Jet-A fuel only. (Customer may opt out, if requested). The more jets fly to Truckee, the more the organization benefits financially, but such donations can have a chilling effect on any NGOs willingness to oppose environmentally harmful actions of the benefactors.
At board meetings, Airport officials openly talk about using public money for PR campaigns to win support of local residents and groups. One board member even commented that since there is not much that can be done about limiting plane noise, the Truckee Airport can at least do something good for the community. These are usually projects these board members or Airport staffers privately support or are associated with organizations that support them. While they recuse themselves from some discussions or votes on these donations due to real or potential conflicts of interest, public money is being spent on private groups and projects that have no connection with aviation, public source of the money is not being clearly disclosed, and in some cases these donations benefit already well-funded pro-development and pro-growth groups.
The fact that the Airport uses public money for such charitable and public relations purposes is rarely if ever openly acknowledged, thus leaving a false impression that the one per-centers who use the airport are responsible for these donations when in fact they are the primary beneficiaries of the property tax subsidy paid mostly by middle class local residents who are also paying the price of diminished quality of life and possibly lower home values due to growing jet noise.
While supporters of expanding airport traffic talk about trickle down benefits for local businesses which do provide employment, with the exception of consistent comments from Director Hetherington and more recently from Director Van Berkem, there has been very little talk at the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board meetings about long-term costs of jet traffic and the damage it causes to the environment and the town’s character as a tourist destination. Ecotourism is the only sustainable basis for the local economy unless Town of Truckee and Airport officials turn it into a series of deteriorating business parks and strip malls–a process already well underway. So while there is now talk about environmental awareness and voters’ concerns, nothing yet has been done to discourage private and semi-commercial jet and other plane traffic to Truckee. It keeps growing along with complaints from Northstar and Truckee residents.
Local residents should attend and speak at Board meetings (the next one is April 22, 2015 4:30p.m.), post noise complaints online, call (530) 587-4119 or 1-800-FLY-2TRK, or contact Board President Mr. John Jones and other Board members. In the future, local residents should run in local elections for seats on the Truckee Tahoe District Board of Directors.
Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer and media freedom nonprofit NGO director. His articles have been published in The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, National Review, American Diplomacy Journal and in other newspapers and magazines. His investigative journalism work has been noted by NPR, Fox News, Congressional Record, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications. Much of his professional work as a journalist and former acting associate director of the Voice of America (VOA) was focused on Soviet disinformation and propaganda. He has been a Truckee resident for the past four years. He is the author of “WOJTYŁA’s WOMEN: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” published in the UK by O-Books (2008) and in Poland.