Sunday, April 13, 2014

Helicopter pilot challenges Torrance municipal noise regulations


TORRANCE >> With a noise-weary public increasingly clamoring for stricter controls on loud aircraft, the City Council on Tuesday, for the first time, is scheduled to hear an appeal from a helicopter pilot who violated municipal noise regulations at Zamperini Field. 

The potentially precedent-setting hearing also is shaping up as the initial skirmish of what could well evolve into protracted legal conflict over the validity of the city’s noise ordinance itself.

“We recognize this is a Pandora’s box,” Mayor Frank Scotto said. “Unfortunately, pilots don’t believe a municipality has the right to dictate noise levels to them and we believe we do have the right to protect our residents.”

Battle lines are already being drawn.

The helicopter pilot, Hitomi Jinda, who has operated a helicopter flight school at Torrance Municipal Airport since 2003 called JJ Helicopters, has retained an attorney who fired off a nine-page letter to the city contending the issue is outside municipal jurisdiction.

Jinda contends she only violated noise regulations because she wanted to keep two other aircraft at a safe distance.

“A city cannot regulate an aircraft in flight that is compliant with federal law and regulations, even for noise-abatement purposes,” the letter from Los Angeles-based attorney Stan M. Barankiewicz II reads in part, citing FAA policy and a previous court case.

“Further, to find appellant guilty when putting safety before noise concerns would impermissibly impinge into an area that the federal government has clearly pre-empted,” he added. “Determining appellant guilty of a noise violation threatens the very existence of JJ Helicopters.”

However, the helicopter in question — although not necessarily the same pilot — has racked up at least 10 violations of the city’s noise ordinance in the past five years, city officials noted at the January noise-abatement hearing where Jinda was found to have exceeded noise limits.

A mere three violations of the ordinance within three years could find both the pilot and helicopter banned from the airport for three years.

“It’s unusual to have a helicopter that has this number of violations,” said Linda Cessna, deputy community development director said at the hearing. “There’s some kind of issue with this particular helicopter.”

It’s unclear why municipal staff haven’t already cracked down on the company. Cessna could not be reached for comment late Friday.

But it appears city staff haven’t followed up on the noise violations, said John Bailey, a local homeowners association president who is one of the most active government watchdogs in the community.

“There’s a problem in the system,” he said. “It’s ludicrous that over a time span of five years they just let this go on and on and on. ... The city has let the problem get out of control by never following up.”

The City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 3031 Torrance Blvd.