Truckee neighbors talk dogs, environment and jet noise

Eco Truckee Tahoe NewsEco Truckee Tahoe Commentary

Ted Lipien

Martis Lake on a Cloudy 2014 December Day

Martis Lake on a Cloudy 2014 December Day

Neighbors meet and talk. On Tuesday, I met a Truckee woman with a small white dog near Martis Lake in the middle of the day. I was walking there to take some photos to document for the low water levels due to California drought. She was taking herself and her dog for a walk.  We were both about the same age, obviously with some free time at our disposal.  It was a cloudy day, but we still enjoyed being outdoors in one of the most beautiful natural settings near Truckee.

I noticed earlier from afar that the woman was talking to a park ranger who drove by.  When I approached her, I asked whether she had attended the meeting Monday night about proposed restrictions on the use of federal land around Martis Lake and Martis Creek near Truckee.  It is the Army Corps of Engineers that has control over this area. They  had organized the meeting for local residents  as part of their planned revision of rules and regulations for the federal land they oversee for flood control and environmental preservation. I was curious to know what she thought about it. She had not attended the meeting and wanted to know more, sharing with me her concern about any burdensome future federal restrictions that may be imposed on the way Truckee residents have been using the area for many years. I told her that I did not learn much at what was a rather pro-forma meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers. There was definitely talk of introducing restrictions on off-leash dogs in many areas and on hunting in other areas.  One small area for off-leash dogs appeared to be part of the Army Corps of Engineers plan. They seemed concerned that the land may be getting too much use. To me, dogs seem to be a small problem for the environment compared to developers and local politicians who want to overdevelop the area.

Many local residents showed up for the Monday meeting to learn about any proposed changes and to voice their own concerns. But in what appears to be an emerging pattern among local, state and federal government officials, what was described as a public workshop was in fact designed in such a way as to discourage the public from asking any questions in public and to have a public and open discussion with government officials. Several participants voiced their displeasure, and rightly so.

Water Level Marker at Martis Lake,  Dec. 9, 2014

Water Level Marker at Martis Lake, Dec. 9, 2014

But at least, an Army Corps of Engineers representative publicly welcomed everyone, which allowed for a brief but open exchange of questions and answers, albeit not a very productive one for many of the Truckee and Martis Valley residents who came to the meeting. One Army Corps of Engineers representative I talked to privately was well prepared and quite forthcoming with information. Among other things, he told me how some of the gated communities around Truckee violate federal rules by giving themselves special open access to federal lands while keeping everybody else out. He was not sure, however, whether the Army Corps of Engineers can or will do anything about it.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Truckee Meeting Dec. 8 2014

The Monday U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting was not by any means a shining example of transparency and effective dialogue, but I attended a recent local Truckee Airport public workshop that was far worse in this respect (more on it later).

Since the lady with the dog and I were both within the eyesight of the Truckee airport, I asked whether she has noticed recently any increase in jet traffic and jet noise. She immediately responded that she has definitely became aware of it, especially last summer. She added that she lives near Truckee River and finds low-flying jets and their noise extremely disruptive. She also said that she had tried to camp out in her camper near Martis Lake to find some solitude, but the noise from jets there became just as bad there if not worse, especially in the evenings.

I told her that indeed there has been a significant scientifically measured increase in jet traffic last summer and a corresponding increase in plane noise complaints, as officially reported by the Truckee Tahoe Airport. I also told her that according to Airport officials, this increase in jet traffic and noise is part of a broader pattern which was forecast to happen and to continue for many years to come. But we are being told by Airport officials, I informed her, that the growth in jet traffic and noise is something that the local community was  well-informed about ahead of time, expected it, and overwhelmingly agreed to it as being consistent with community growth.  I told her that on Labor Day afternoon this year, I personally observed six loud private jets flying low over an otherwise quite residential Truckee neighborhood within one hour — one jet approximately every ten minutes.

My Truckee neighbor with a dog laughed  when I said that Truckee residents were warned that this would happen and that they are OK with it. She said that the vast majority of people living in Truckee who moved here to find a restful and quiet environment have absolutely no idea that Airport officials would make such a claim. I had to agree with her. 

Most Truckee residents are not aware that they are for more jet traffic and jet noise — and many, if not most — do not know that they are subsidizing with their property tax dollars plane travel to Truckee for a few affluent individuals. Airport officials say that this is good for the economy, but neither they nor most of the elected Truckee government officials talk about the long-term impact on the economy from environmental degradation. There seems to be no interest among town officials in encouraging  sustainable growth through responsible travel and geotourism.

The lady did not know exactly how much money from local property taxes is going to the Airport. I told her it is now approximately $4.3 million per year. I also told her that Airport officials plan to  use part of that money to build a new tall hangar to accommodate large business jets, while selling it to local residents also as a community room to be used for community events.

I was surprised  to learn that my Truckee neighbor with a dog was vaguely aware of the hangar proposal because from what I can see most Truckee residents do not know about it. As she expressed her deep concern about the whole project and how it might make life miserable for Truckee, I said that according to Airport officials — but not local pilots — the hangar will not contribute to increased jet traffic, if anyone can believe such a claim.

She laughed again and I assured her that her instinct was almost certainly correct. Even local pilots, including some who fly jets, are absolutely convinced that the hangar and other new amenities being provided by the Airport at local taxpayers’ expense all contribute to increased use of the airport by affluent individuals who fly private jets.  I also told her that local pilots and others consider the airport to be one of the most dangerous in the country, not because of the way it is being run — it is managed extremely well due to excellent staff and abundant funding by taxpayers and user fees — but because of the mountains, high altitude, and unpredictable weather. Many planes have crashed at or near the Truckee airport over the years.

"Proposed New Combined Aviation Community Use Building in Truckee." We prefer to call it a tax-subsidized jet hangar for environmentally-challenged millionaires.

“Proposed New Combined Aviation Community Use Building in Truckee.” We prefer to call it a tax-subsidized jet hangar for environmentally-challenged millionaires.

The lady with the dog volunteered an observation that most of private jet users live in areas of Truckee where they are not much affected by their own environmentally destructive habit while imposing its consequences on others.  We discussed how the airport cannot be compared to I-80 which serves the vast majority of the local population and for which there is no practical or economic alternative. She found it highly disturbing that local residents who are being exposed to increasing levels of jet traffic, jet noise and air pollution are subsidizing the use of the Truckee Airport by a few rich individuals who refuse to take a commercial flight or fly their private jets to Reno with its large airport in an urban, as opposed to a rural environment.

Surprisingly, my Truckee neighbor also seemed aware that except for one Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board of Directors member, Truckee resident Mary Hetherington whom she somehow knew,  the rest of the elected Board members  are either strongly in favor in expanding airport facilities for the forecasted growth of jet traffic or do not do anything to discourage growth. Having attended many Airport Board meetings, I told her she was generally correct on that point.

Unfortunately, I also learned from my Truckee neighbor that she had not attended any of the Airport Board meetings. She did not know that these meetings are being held monthly at the airport in late afternoons and the dates and times are posted on the airport’s official website. She also did not know that she could have make her concerns known at the Board meetings, could have called the Airport to file plane noise complaints or could file the same complaints online. I have attended many Truckee Airport Board meetings, but I have not attended or watched online Truckee Town Council meetings. With the launch of eco-journalism project, I will have to from now on, as this is a larger community problem.

I strongly encouraged my walking companion to come to Airport Board meetings, express her concerns, and to report plane noise by calling the Airport or going online. I also told her that according to Airport officials, usually the same small number of Truckee residents complain about plane noise. I also warned her that I have noticed a disturbing tendency among some Airport staffers to describe individuals who complain as at best eccentric. A recent public Airport document even went as far as to identify one complainer’s medical condition (she claimed to be extremely sensitive to noise) and without mentioning her name disclosed highly personal information about her in an apparent effort to present her as unusual. Such descriptions tend to undermine credibility of complaints. We agreed that more Truckee residents need to be informed about these issues and encouraged to make their views known to Airport officials on how local taxpayers’ money should be used to protect the quality of life and the environment.

My Truckee neighbor and I then talked briefly how Airport officials are using public money to co-opt local non-profit organizations and  other groups so that they would not oppose the current and future growth of plane traffic and noise. I told her how the Airport gave two local environmental organizations “green” donations tied directly to the sale of jet fuel. My Truckee neighbor was quite disturbed by that news, but said that it seems to be a typical behavior among many local government officials. She gave me the name of one Truckee Town Council member who she believes is a supporter of the environment and sustainable growth. She urged to interview him. I told her that we would.

As we were talking about the need for greater transparency, I described to her how a recent public workshop to discuss the proposed Truckee jet hangar was packed almost entirely with representatives of groups which might benefit for its use as a community room. Except for  one or two individuals, people who call in with noise complaints did not show up, which makes one wonder whether they were specifically invited. At the same time,  many potential beneficiaries from the construction of the hangar knew about the meeting and showed up in large numbers.

Truckee Tahoe Airport Jet Hangar Workshop on Nov. 5, 2014

Truckee Tahoe Airport Jet Hangar Workshop on Nov. 5, 2014

At a later Airport Board meeting, someone reportedly made a point of saying that all, or nearly all negative comments posted on a billboard at the workshop came from one individual.  In fact, there were at least two or perhaps three persons (but not more than three in a group of two or three dozen) who had written broader questions as to whether taxpayers money could not be better spent on a new Public Library or on local schools rather than a banquet hall for about 600 people or used for promoting responsible commercial or even private air travel to Reno Airport instead.) The Airport organizers of the workshop structured it in such as way that there was no opportunity to voice a comment to the entire group. I was told that Airport officials are concerned about people who may be uncomfortable asking questions or speaking in public. It’s fine to allow for posting notes, but why exclude the option of public Q & As and failing to even address a community group in public on an important public issue.

My walking companion and I agreed on practically everything, especially the need for greater transparency and better media reporting. It was clear to us that Truckee residents cannot remain indifferent to these governance problems affecting the entire community or allow themselves to be treated like children.

Photo from Truckee Tahoe Airport Proposed New Combined Aviation Community Use Building in Truckee Flyer

Photo from “Proposed New Combined Aviation Community Use Building in Truckee” Flyer

This is in a nutshell what Truckee neighbors sometimes talk about when they meet on a hiking trail. But in a perfect world, they also should have been learning about these environmental and quality of life issues through local media.

If local media were paying attention to such things, Truckee residents could find out for example that Airport officials are promoting the proposed jet hangar with a photo showing small children using a hangar-like setting for what appears to be a learning event of some kind. The promotional brochure from the Airport does not mention any negative environmental impacts of the jet hangar for the community. What most Truckee parents may not know about is that experienced local pilots consider this airport to be one of the most dangerous in the country and it is considered as such by aviation authorities. A private plane crashed into one of the existing hangars not too long ago. The pilot was killed, but by a miracle there was no fuel explosion that could have killed people on the ground.

Safety is not the only issue. Each time I see the luxurious Truckee airport terminal constructed with local tax dollars, I think about the dismal state of the local Truckee Public Library. This is something that has bothered me ever since my wife and I moved to Truckee several years ago. Why should Truckee schoolchildren be brought to a plane hangar and exposed to all kinds of risks instead of providing them with a large public library, a multimedia center,  and plenty of other large rooms for school-connected events and other public meetings in a safe and conveniently located (near Truckee schools) place? Would this not be a better use of public money than subsidizing environmentally-challenged jet setting millionaires?

My walking companion and I agreed on this point as well and decided to keep in touch.  As we parted, she expressed hope that will report on jet noise and other environmental and governance issues. I assured her that we will. I also told her that we will not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any special interest groups or their money, which we concluded has been a big problem for this region.

That’s what Truckee neighbors talk about when they meet by chance walking near Martis Lake. Neighbors talking to each other can make a difference for Truckee, I hope. Next time you see a neighbor, talk to them about jet noise, the environment and an eco-friendly vision for growing the local economy. Urge them to contact the Airport Board and local government officials.

Ted Lipien is a resident of Truckee and an investigative reporter whose work has been noted by or appeared in Congressional Record, Washington Post, Washington Times, NPR, Fox News and many other U.S. media. He volunteers with Eco Truckee Tahoe as a reporter, writer, web designer, and photographer.

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