Pressure is growing on the city of Chicago to jettison its resistance to finding ways to reduce noise levels in residential areas caused by planes serving O’Hare International Airport.
Two Chicago aldermen who have been put in a virtual holding pattern since January by City Hall over their demand for City Council hearings on increased O’Hare noise aren’t letting up.
Aldermen Mary O’Connor, 41st, and Margaret Laurino, 39th, last week received council approval to place an advisory referendum proposal on the November ballot. It will ask voters whether the federal government should expand the footprint of homes eligible for taxpayer-funded soundproofing.
And last week, the village of Bensenville, a once-ardent foe of O’Hare expansion that under current leadership has supported new runways, said that cutting airport noise has again become “a top priority.”
The about-face has taken place in the wake of outrage in the village over new flight patterns inaugurated last fall with the opening of another airstrip. Under the changes, most planes now take off toward the west, and the majority of arrivals approach O’Hare from the east. Bensenville is directly west of the new runway.
“My idea is just to welcome some of these big-shot (politicians) to my property. I am going to make a coffee for you. We will sit down for a couple of hours under the planes and talk about it because what is happening now is empty talking,” Bensenville resident Chester Gorniak, 64, said after a meeting Friday of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.
The number of complaints made to a city-operated noise hot line and website reached a new high in March, exceeding 11,000, and totaled almost 25,000 in the first three months of 2014.
During the noise commission meeting, Bensenville Trustee JoEllen Ridder called for ongoing discussions with Chicago and federal aviation officials to address the increasing number of noise complaints from village residents.
“Our goal is to find solutions and implement those solutions as soon as possible to improve the quality of life for our residents,” Bensenville Village President Frank Soto said.
But the Emanuel administration hasn’t acceded to any demands or even been open to talking, critics said.
Leaders of Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, which mainly represents Chicago residents who have experienced increased jet noise, said they haven’t received any responses from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the group’s seven requests for a meeting to discuss increased jet noise and pollution over the Northwest Side of Chicago.
“We are his constituents, and Chicago still is, at least to some degree, a democracy,” said a group leader, Jac Charlier.
FAiR is pushing for the city and the Federal Aviation Administration to spread flights more widely among O’Hare runways to spare neighborhoods that are miles away from the airport — including Sauganash, Norwood Park, Forest Glen, Edgebrook and North Park — from being saturated with the sound of low-flying jetliners.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, whose district includes O’Hare, said he has talked with Emanuel and Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino and that their “response has been underwhelming.”
“The Chicago Department of Aviation needs to step up, improve its working relationship and communications with the public, and it must develop a plan to alleviate to the extent possible these noise issues,” Quigley told the Tribune on Friday.
Ald. Michael Zalewski, 23rd, who chairs the City Council’s aviation committee, has repeatedly said that the public hearing in City Council chambers demanded by O’Connor and Laurino will be held but that scheduling conflicts, including setting a date when Quigley is available to attend, slowed the process.
Quigley said the real problem is “they don’t want the embarrassment of a hearing.”
City officials say they have taken other steps to help affected residents.
Chicago has insulated more than 10,000 residences and about 120 schools around O’Hare since 1996, said Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
She said the department is “committed to balancing the quality of life for residents in communities surrounding O’Hare with the economic significance of the airport.”
She also said Andolino has met numerous times with Quigley and members of the FAIR Coalition to discuss noise issues.
Andolino has so far flatly rejected calls by residents and elected officials, including Quigley and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, to expand the hours of O’Hare’s voluntary guidelines designed to reduce jet noise at night, called a Fly Quiet Program, or diffuse airplane noise over wider areas by shifting runway-usage patterns more often.
Those are among options available in the air-traffic control playbook, FAA officials said, but it’s solely the city’s decision whether to pursue changes.
“If the city and the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission choose to consider other things, then we certainly want to partner with them and listen … in terms of what would be in the best interests of the community,” Barry Cooper, the FAA administrator for the Great Lakes region, told the Tribune on Friday.
The noise commission was created by Chicago years ago to address jet-noise concerns affecting neighborhoods and schools, but critics say it too often simply defends Chicago’s position that increasing flights at O’Hare is in the best interests of the area’s economy.
Cooper said the public should be aware that “the Fly Quiet Program is a product of the city of Chicago. Our responsibility is moving air traffic efficiently and safely.”
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