A group of homeowners near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) are suing the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) over inadequate, less-than-promised, noise mitigation. District Court Judge Stephen C. Aldrich will hear motions and arguments June 21, 2006, concerning certification of the case as a class action. The certification is vigorously opposed by MAC because it increases the Commission's liability many times over if the case is eventually settled or lost. In a class action, the Court may award plaintiff's costs, set a schedule for completion of the remedial work, and assess liquidated damages for delays. More specifics can be found at their attorney's web-site: www.zimmreed.com.
The South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) suggests that Legislators and citizens would be enlightened by hearing the MAC’s motions and responses in the case. The MAC claims that the State ceded authorities to the MAC enabling the Commission to “legislate” changes in its responsibilities under the 1996 Minnesota Law enabling MSP expansion. The MAC also denies that various public statements and representations were made, in spite of numerous reports and documents uncovered in discovery.
The homeowners' case dovetails with lawsuits against MAC and Northwest Airlines brought by three Minnesota cities bordering MSP: Eagan, Minneapolis, and Richfield. The cities hold that contracts were made with them by MAC memorializing conditions imposed or allowed by the 1996 Minnesota law enabling expansion of MSP. One of the conditions was extension of the sound insulation program to 4,000+ existing residential units in the 64 to 60 DNL contour as mapped in 1998 for operations projected for the first full year after opening a new runway. In spite of the new runway, use of the main, or parallel, runways was projected to reach or exceed 1996 levels.
The homeowners' allege that they were the intended, secondary, benefactors of the contracts and reasonably expected completion of the extended sound insulation program. The homeowners' suit claims damages from delay or denial of the noise mitigation by MAC. Neither FAA nor Northwest are named defendants in the suit, because MAC pledged to finance the extended program from airport revenues or tax levies, if necessary, not from passenger facility charges (PFC's) as in the Federal Part 150 Noise Compatibility Program.
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The Cities' suit was brought after the MAC several times delayed and reduced budgets for the extended sound insulation program, most recently by rejecting a $150 million "compromise" program proposed by its own Noise Oversight Committee. The NOC recommendation limited 5 db attentuation (insulation) areas and an undefined "special project" allowance of $15,000 maximum for single-family units further from the airport.
MSP capital budget estimates, originally about $121 million in 1996 dollars (4,000+ units at the unit cost average in the Part 150 program) increased because unit costs increased (larger homes further from the airport), because more residential units were built, and because material costs and labor rates increased in the Twin Cities. Using MAC figures, the scope of the 64-60 DNL program would have exceeded $300 million if completed during 2004-05.
The South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) established a litigation fund and evaluated legal strategies several years ago. SMAAC's research led to the two main strategies: mandamus actions against MAC for neither following nor seeking Legislative relief from provisions in the 1995 law, and a class action leveraging movement on the noise mitigation front by Court orders setting a schedule for compliance.
Robert C. Moilanen and Carolyn G. Anderson of Zimmerman Reed said the complaint, filed September 1, 2005, alleges that the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) failed to mitigate aircraft noise as promised in 1996. Communities surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport agreed generally and specifically with the MAC to a supplemental (extended) residential sound insulation program, and homeowners were the "third-party beneficiaries" protected by the agreement.
Moilanen said in his presentation that several lawsuits against the MAC, based on different complaints, suggested that something was seriously wrong. "It is unusual for municipalities and agencies to sue one another, and probably the Governor or the Legislature will weigh in." He said that a Court Order is another possible outcome, and "It is a good thing that the judicial branch can remedy injustices caused by the legislative or executive branches of government."
Class actions enable many smaller claimants to jointly pursue a case they could not afford to litigate separately.