Centennial Airport re-files legal action against FAA over flight-paths project

Case joined by Arapahoe, Douglas, Gilpin counties, Greenwood Village over Denver Metroplex


Just before the federal government implemented a plan in March to reroute airplane traffic in the Denver metro area, Centennial Airport and local governments filed legal action asking a court to review a study of the plan’s potential impact on noise and the environment.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to optimize arrival and departure at local airports is called the Denver Metroplex project, and it includes Denver International Airport, Centennial Airport and some others.

An FAA environmental-assessment study looked at impacts the project could have on noise, air quality, wildlife, and historic and cultural resources.

It said the proposed change in flight paths is expected to have “no significant impacts” on those aspects of the project’s area, including metro Denver and the Greeley area.

The FAA released an official final word — a “finding of no significant impact” and “record of decision” — which enabled the agency to move forward with the Metroplex project. The decision was announced Jan. 24.

The finding means the FAA determined that a further review, called an environmental impact statement, isn’t necessary before the plan is put into action, according to the FAA’s website.

Despite the court challenge, the project went into effect as scheduled on March 26, according to Centennial Airport, after nearly four years since the FAA put the plan in motion. But local officials in the south Denver metro area and beyond are hoping to pump the brakes.

Centennial Airport; the boards of commissioners of Arapahoe, Douglas and Gilpin counties; and the City of Greenwood Village filed legal action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in March, a few days before the plan’s implementation date. It’s the latest outcry in years of complaints local officials have raised about the plan.

The legal action seeks to address whether “the FAA’s finding of no significant impact in its environmental assessment was arbitrary and capricious” and whether the agency’s process violated federal environmental policy, according to an April 23 filing in the case.

It also asks the court for review of the FAA’s determination that an environmental impact statement isn’t needed.

While the plan would directly impact only a handful of airports, potential effects could be felt in an area that includes all, or portions of, 31 counties in Colorado — although the FAA’s analysis indicates only a few dozen people would experience notable noise increases, located in unincorporated Jefferson County and unincorporated Elbert County.

Conflicting accounts

“The FAA’s environmental review for the project indicates some people will experience slight noise decreases, some will see no changes and some will experience small noise increases,” the FAA said in a news release.

Centennial Airport has argued at length that the FAA didn’t consider the impact of flight that occurs below 3,000 feet above ground, and that leaves unclear how much communities could be affected by the planned changes.

Littleton, Centennial, Cherry Hills Village, Lone Tree, Castle Rock and other nearby cities could experience effects, but it’s unknown how much, Robert Olislagers, executive director of Centennial Airport, has said.

“As has been stated before, the FAA completely ignores impacts below 3,000 (feet above ground), which makes any noise modeling deeply flawed,” the airport wrote in a Dec. 18 letter to the FAA.

That means the final part of flight wasn’t adequately analyzed by the agency, the airport argued in a separate letter to the FAA.

But Kenitzer, the FAA spokesman, said in December that noise modeling was done in the environmental assessment for the portion of flight that occurs below 3,000 feet above ground for all proposed paths in the Metroplex plan, and said that includes the final portion of flight.

It remains unclear what explains the discrepancy between the airport’s and FAA’s statements.

“We respectfully disagree with the FAA,” Olislagers said in January. The airport intends to address the point in court, according to Deborah Grigsby Smith, airport spokeswoman.

Gilpin criticism

A filing in the case argues the FAA’s movement of a flight path south at the request of a Boulder County citizen increased negative impacts on Gilpin County and was arbitrary and capricious.

The case also argues the FAA failed to involve Gilpin County, including the county’s board of commissioners, its Historic Preservation Advisory Commission and its citizens, in outreach about the plan. It also said the FAA failed to include county officials and the county’s historic preservation body in consultation required under the National Historic Preservation Act.

COVID-19 weighs on case

By the time the Metroplex project went into effect on March 26, the coronavirus pandemic had altered the commercial and the general aviation landscape, said Olislagers, Centennial Airport's director.

The COVID-19 crisis caused massive reductions in flights by as much as 90%, Olislagers said. That made it impossible to assess the impact of the project’s new flight paths.

“The coronavirus basically upended that for the time being since there will be no good baseline comparison at this time between pre- and post-Metroplex implementation impacts,” Olislagers said.

When “we see a return to normal, those impacts will become much clearer, and the expectation is that any relevant evidence will be presented in court.” 

The action is a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filed March 20 by the Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority — the government body that oversees the airport — and Greenwood Village, Gilpin County and Mountain Aviation Inc., a charter and owner-operated aircraft services company headquartered at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in the Broomfield area.

Arapahoe and Douglas counties filed a separate petition for review March 23, and the two petitions were consolidated into one case.

Initially, Centennial Airport had filed a petition for review June 19 but later withdrew its case because the filing was premature, and the court formally dismissed the case Aug. 16. The new petition bears no difference from the airport’s side of the case, according to Grigsby Smith, the airport spokeswoman.

Centennial Airport, Denver Metroplex, flight paths, noise, legal, Ellis Arnold


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