At Wednesday evening's City Council meeting, local residents, Mayor Jim Janney and the City Council, city staff and even the president of the South Bay Union School District Board of Trustees called the Navy's environmental assessment flawed and lacking measurement of noise levels and consequences to neighborhoods bordering the Outlying Landing Field.
Though a discussion to formulate the city's official comment on the assessment was added to the agenda only a few days prior, nearly every seat in council chambers was taken in one of the most attended meetings since councilmembers were sworn in last December.
The U.S. Navy wants to increase the number of helicopters . This would push helicopter traffic up to more than 320,000 helicopter flights a year.
The additional four Anti-Submarine Squadrons and 800 sailors will be based at Naval Air Station North Island but practice primarily in Imperial Beach.
Last week, the Navy held to discuss the increase and the draft environmental assessment. Public comments have been requested until March 28 to be included in a final environmental assessment. Navy leadership will then decide whether or not to increase helicopter operations.
Of nine residents who came to comment Wednesday, all live in the Seaside Point or Oneonta neighborhoods, many within blocks of the Outlying Landing Field.
All but one said they strongly disagree with the idea of increasing air traffic and that Navy helicopters often violate an agreement between the city and the Navy not to fly over homes and keep helicopter flight within certain hours.
Many saw examples of violations within the last week.
School board trustee and President Chris Brown lives blocks from the Outlying Field. She said an increase in helicopter flights in the area would have an impact on students, local residents and her own quality of life.
Last week, she said, she was at Oneonta Elementary School.
“I was on the playground,” Brown said. “And you couldn't even hear the kids playing they were so low and so loud. There's been violation after violation coming over my house at night, in the day and at Oneonta.
“Now I'm always in support of the Navy. I think everyone in this community has connections with the Navy. When I moved into my home in 1972, that was a full NAS (Naval Air Station),” Brown said.
“The rate that they're talking about now will exceed the noise when it was a full NAS. And I work down there, so I know what I'm talking about,” she said. “It will affect our property values, it affects our students and my house shakes also. And I'm two blocks away from the fence.”
Two Seaside Point residents bought their own decibel meters to measure the amount of noise from a helicopter flyover. Both found noise levels around 90 decibels.
“When the helicopters decide to fly low or buzz the palm trees, it's 88-90 decibels, and I can see the drapes in my house shaking,” said Casey Simons who lives a few blocks from the boundary between the landing field and Seaside Point.
He knew about the helicopters when he moved in and supports the Navy, he said, and “can understand the sound of freedom down there” but “the idea that they're going to increase that by 30 percent … at the level it is right now is barely tolerable,” he said.
Simons attended the Navy's open house last week.
The Navy's environmental assessment measures flyovers in seven places along the helicopter's flight path, from Seacoast Drive to Coronado Cays to Coronado neighborhoods, but not Seaside Point.
“Well living where I live right on the back fence line, I can stand in my backyard and see the bottom of a helicopter. So this will impact us as residents,” Simons said. “The increase will affect our homes, our property values, even just the vibrations and the structural damage to maintain it. I'm not here to complain, I'm just giving you examples of why you should take a stance.”
Former Marine helicopter pilot Dante Pamintuan moved with his family to Seaside Point last October. He called the assessment “flawed, one-sided, vague and incomplete.”
“The neighbors here at Seaside Point and down in Oneonta have been very gracious in being a good neighbor. And I don't believe that the Navy has held up their end of the agreement by going and encroaching on the fence line,” Pamituan said. “I don't believe that this EA is complete. You don't have enough information to make a decision.”
Pamintuan said he spoke to Capt. Lindsey at the open house March 10, and was told helicopters operations are concentrated along the southern boundary of the field away from developed properties north of the field.
“That's false. That has not been happening,” Pamituan said. “It's specifically not happening in our neighborhood.”
After the meeting, Pamintuan suggested the city, in the long term, recommend the landing field be removed entirely.
“Imagine a development there or world-class university,” he said.
Councilman Ed Spriggs suggested the city measure decibels themselves as proof that violations of the Navy and city's agreement is taking place. He also advised residents in the area to document and report violations.
Before the City Council took comments from the public, Jim Nakagawa gave a presentation reviewing the proposed Navy actions.
Nakagawa recommended a noise attenuation retrofit program for homes near the military to secure homes shaken by helicopter noise, extending the comment period set to end March 28 at least 30 days and additional testing to “fairly assess what kind of noise levels we are talking about in these communities.”
“Because the environmental document proposes some changes that differ significantly from existing conditions, we believe the preparation of an environmental impact statement is warranted in this project,” he said.
Unlike an environmental assessment, an environmental impact statement, Nakagawa said, requires the identification of significant impacts to the environment and calls for measures to mitigate consequences.
“Now the proposed action by 30 percent but that includes an increase in night operations,” Nakagawa said. “The action does not appear to recognize our current curfew agreement we have with the Navy.”
Community Development Department Director Greg Wade said the agreement is not in writing.
“That is a very big problem,” said Mayor Jim Janney, who suggested using minutes from past meetings where former NASNI Commanders testified to the agreement.
“And I think we need to challenge them on the fact that we don't think it's adequate,” he said. “The big guy on the block is the federal government and we might not get everything we want out of them, but we should at least get something out of them, and if nothing else, if they're going to bring the helicopters here, they can retrofit all the homes in the area or something.
“I don't want to give in completely here but I'm just trying to think what we could get, because I just see them saying no, but if we give them some options that they can actually accomplish other than saying no more helicopters, which they might not be able to do, it's how do we mitigate the noise problems.”
Councilwoman Lorie Bragg, along with other residents and other councilmembers, said the city of Imperial Beach should request the comment period be extended to allow residents, school districts and other impacted parties more time to give their opinion on a helicopter increase.
“What it really comes down to was their report was dismissive or minimal in their consideration of the issues that we're discussing,” she said. “And I know the Navy maybe wants to rush this along, but I think the issue is too important to rush.”
Mary Hinsley said she is worried about what the constant activity does to her home and believes the structural integrity of her home could be compromised.
“It constantly vibrates. The pictures vibrate. You can put your hand on it and feel it especially when the helicopters are coming down and going up,” she said.
The only person to comment in favor of the increase was Jim Davis, who lives in Seaside Point and is in the Navy.
“The guys who fly those helicopters are going in harm's way every day, they're risking their lives every time they go in the cockpit,” he said. “If they're not practicing at Ream, I don't know where they're going to practice.
“They know the rules. They are very careful about obeying the rules,” he said
Nancy Dayton said she wouldn't have known about the meeting if it wasn't for Christine Hillger, who distributed hundred of flyers to residents in the area to encourage them to attend and to learn more about the helicopter increase. .
“Every one of you here, if you expect us to be the only voice to challenge the Navy on this EA then we most likely will fail, cause if you don't put your own pens to the paper and write your own comments, even if it's on a yellow sticky note, the more the merrier,” Janney said.
To comment, .
City Manager Gary Brown suggested comments made at the meeting be added to the city's official comment on the environmental assessment.