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Possible Lawsuit After Navy Finds No Significant Impact From Helicopter Increase

In a final draft of an Environmental Assessment prepared by the Navy and ridiculed over the past months in Coronado and Imperial Beach, no significant impact was found for a 30 percent increase in helicopter activity and additional squadrons.

After months of dispute over a plan to increase military training in the area, a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) released by the Navy in February and made public last Friday found no significant impact to the local environment from the proposal.

That means plans to increase helicopter activity in Imperial Beach by a maximum 30 percent at Naval Outlying Landing Field Imperial Beach (NOLF IB) and to station 800 additional sailors at Naval Base Coronado by 2016 can go forward.

Navy officials called the increase in activity important to objectives set by the Department of Defense for the future of American Armed Forces. But City Planner Jim Nakagawa in Imperial Beach, Coronado City Manager Blair King and some local residents recommended that a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be conducted in order to further examine the consequences of more helicopter activity.

Chris and Gene Hillger live in Imperial Beach's Seaside Point neighborhood, and when they heard about the helicopter increase they went door-to-door to pass out hundreds of fliers to neighbors. The couple also made appearances in front of City Council to voice their opposition.

Now that a final EA has been released, Gene plans to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks together with other interested parties against the Navy to force them to do an EIS. A lawyer by trade, Gene plans to consult with other lawyers before filing the lawsuit but said an EIS is justified in part because the combined impact of training at NOLF IB and planned increases of training on the Silver Strand north of IB weren't considered as a whole.

He also believes the EA does not fulfill federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements.

The Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment.

"The EA that was issued was incomplete, inaccurate and insufficient," he said. "When they do [helicopter] training five days a week then Saturday evening there's loud booms on the Silver Strand. ... Well, that's fine but IB never gets a break. We'll got noise seven days a week."

Teresa Bresler with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest said the Navy addressed this issue in the final Environmental Assessment.

"The cumulative noise effects of the helicopter realignment in addition to other actions like Silver Strand Training Complex training would not be significant because they are separated by distance," she said in an email. "As a result, there would be little to no change in the projected noise contours at North Island and Imperial Beach."

Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney said, "I'm sure some folks aren't happy. We had quite a bit of correspondence to the Navy and our elected representatives, and even some of those elected representatives in Congress and this is what we got.

"It sounded like we had pretty good Congressional support but that there wasn't anything they could do either," Janney said.

Though an increase in helicopter activity isn't what many who appeared before council wanted, Janney thinks a process to hear the concerns of the public was carried out.

"I doubt you'll find anybody that's going to get up and cheer for it or anything but their process is their process," he said.

An original 30-day public comment period was extended an extra month and in addition to a public information session held in March and appearances before the Coronado and Imperial Beach councils, Capt. Yancy B. Lindsey, commander of Naval Base Coronado, met with residents of Imperial Beach.

A total 73 comments were received from residents, government officials and interested organizations. Comments made by the public were not included in the final Environmental Assessment.

Letters commenting on the proposed realignment plan were sent by Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Congressman Bob Filner, Mayor Jim Janney of Imperial Beach and more.

"The Navy have always been open. Not necessarily the easiest and they're not the most understanding community that much but I think they try," Janney said. "I know for the folks that live there it's not going to be a satisfying answer that they're getting there but I don't know what to say for them there."

When asked to comment on the final EA, the South Bay Union School District superintendent's office said its original letter "speaks for itself."

In a letter sent to the Navy by Superintendent Carol Parish in March, the district disagreed with the Environmental Assessment's finding that there would be no disproportionate impact on children.

"Our view is that an increase of operations will have a definite direct impact on instruction and safety," the letter said, especially if the helicopters veer off their flight path and towards Oneonta Elementary School and VIP Village Preschool half a mile from NOLF IB.

A principal at one of schools was quoted in the letter as saying: "Since I have been at the school for less than two years, I still get distracted by the noise from the helicopters when I am in or out of the classroom. It is much more noisy outside and communication to students on the playground is difficult when they fly overhead.

"All that students and staff can do is wait for the noise to go away. It is roughly about a 30-90 second wait to resume instruction or to resume communication to students on the playground if it is too distracting or loud," the principal said.

A major criticism of the draft EA was the fact that Sound Exposure Level tests which analyze the impact of a single flyover event were conducted in parts of Coronado, on the Silver Strand and at beach houses on Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach but not in neighborhoods bordering NOLF IB.

To address concerns by the school district and other stakeholders, the Navy included five additional noise tests at Oneonta Elementary, the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center, at the corner of Iris Avenue and Delaware Street, a nesting area east of NOLF IB and on the beach at Naval Air Station North Island.

SEL or Sound Exposure Level tests measure single overhead flights while CNEL or Community Noise Equivalency Level tests measure noise over a 24-hour period.

While some residents who live next to the helicopter training facility bought their own decimeters and said they found sound levels near or above 90 decibels, the Navy results found SEL levels in the mid 70s to lower 80s at Iris Avenue and Delaware Street and in the mid to high 60s at Oneonta Elementary.

The loudest SEL was found on the beach at Naval Air Station North Island at 98 decibels.

CNEL tests were near or below 65 decibels at testing sites added to the report in IB. Sixty-five decibels is "the accepted standard for compatibility
with residential areas and sensitive noise receptors, such as school," the report said.

Letters by Congressman Bob Filner and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein urged the Navy to adopt noise abatement policies.

New policies were not adopted as part of the final Environmental Assessment but existing programs were underlined in the document.

In his letter submitted in March, Coronado City Manager Blair King argued that the logic of the Environmental Assessment was flawed when it concludes that a decline in fixed-wing aircraft activity will result in a decline in noise. Though planes create a single loud event, buzzing helicopters will create longer lasting noise problems and "contribute to significant noise and traffic within the community and the Navy should take responsibility for mitigating those impacts."

"These consistent, repeated over flights create elevated noise levels, which are noticeable and generate the majority of complaints received by the city," he said.

King recommended the Navy take steps to reduce noise and to alleviate additional traffic, King suggested the Navy consider shuttles or ferries.

In an interview with KPBS, base commander Lindsey said increases in traffic at Naval Base Coronado were addressed by tests conducted when a third aircraft carrier was considered.

A new 112,000-square-foot hangar to house new squadrons and helicopters will also be built at Naval Base Coronado.

Attached to this story is the final Environmental Assessment, comment letters from elected officials and City Manager Blair King, sound maps and sound test results extracted from the final EA.

You can also visit the or to view a copy of the final EA.

Dick Pilgrim September 09, 2011 at 09:15 PM
Why has Congresswoman Davis, our local representative, and ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee, not weighed in on this issue? While her comments might not have affected the current outcome, I think she at least owed us the courtesy of some involvement.

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