A federal court has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration unlawfully approved the construction of the Cal Black Memorial Airport in San Juan County.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday the FAA's action was "arbitrary and capricious" when concluding in 1990 that aircraft overflight noise due to the airport would have "no significant impact" on visitors to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.The court reversed the FAA's finding, saying it lacked any supporting evidence and even contradicted the FAA's previous conclusions.
The FAA had initially predicted aircraft travel and overflight noise at the park would double with the airport located near Hall's Crossing at Lake Powell.
Before construction commenced in 1990, the National Parks and Conservation Association, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club and Debora Threedy filed a lawsuit petitioning the actions of the FAA and Bureau of Land Management for approving construction and transferring the federal land to San Juan County. The airport opened in 1992.
According to Wednesday's ruling, the FAA must re-analyze the airport's impact on park users. If it finds a significant impact, it must place controls on flights over park land or devise a way to eliminate or minimize noise, or even relocate the airport.
Terri Martin, regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association, said the ruling is a victory for all park visitors and will lead to noise restrictions for other national parks.
"It's part of a larger issue that aircraft overflight noise in parks is increasing," she said. "People don't go to these parks to hear the growl and grind of machinery, they go there for peace and solace and to get away from urban noise."
Under the Federal Transportation Act, the FAA must take "all reasonable steps" to eliminate or avoid negative impacts on a park and its users.
The FAA had concluded that because the airport would not impact the park, it would not "use" area resources and therefore would not have to comply with Transportation Act regulations.
If the FAA again argues the airport does not have a significant impact on park visitors, it will face another lawsuit, Martin said.
The BLM was chastened for unlawfully transferring federal land to San Juan County for the construction of the airport. The court said BLM's transfer was illegal because the BLM didn't provide sufficient public notice to allow participation in the transfer of the public land.
"This puts notice to the BLM that courts are really going to slap them down if they don't involve the public in decision making," Martin said. "They can't just make seat-of-the-pants, subjective decisions."
The court observed that before construction, the BLM told the public it intended to protect the land and made no mention of using it as a possible airport site.
The FAA and BLM refused to comment Friday on the court ruling until they had a chance to review the case. Neither agency expected to issue a statement about the ruling until Monday.