By Delilah Brumer, Correspondent
Throughout their 33 years of calling “the pocket” home, Bill Jackson and Linda Jackson have seen air shows, summer picnics and many friendly neighbors come and go.
Living in the group of houses immediately west of the Van Nuys Airport, they’ve felt, smelled and heard the effects of worsening air and noise pollution — but the Jacksons say they aren’t going anywhere.
“We’re constantly aware of the fumes, and sometimes it’s just stifling,” said Bill Jackson, who is retired. “It’s sort of a combination of that and the noise being so constant. But we bought this house to live in forever and it’s a great neighborhood. I don’t want to walk away from that.”
The Van Nuys Airport is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world, with more than 280,000 flight operations conducted in 2022. Unlike commercial airports, the vast majority of flights at Van Nuys Airport are private or chartered. They can fly at any time, day or night, and passengers are not screened by the Transportation Security Administration.
The growing charter flights have increasingly disrupted Lake Balboa and the areas around it, residents say, yet the most recent environmental report about the airport’s impact on communities in San Fernando Valley was conducted 18 years ago.
“There’s an increased noise [level],” said Karen Fritschi, who lives only a few hundred feet from the airport. “It used to just be very small jets and planes with propellers. Now it’s bigger planes and when they take off at night, they wake people up.”
Sue Steinberg, who has lived only a couple hundred feet away from the Van Nuys Airport for 20 years, said, “I use this analogy of, like if you live next to a skate park and it’s fine, but then some people with a lot of money come in and want a monster truck park. That’s what it’s been like living next to the airport.”
Run by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the airport is in the process of conducting its Van Nuys Vision Study, whose purpose is to help the Los Angeles City Planning Department in its process of updating land-use plans that are more than three decades old.
Charter jets leave a busy Van Nuys airport hours before the Super Bowl starts in AZ Sunday, Van Nuys CA, Feb 12, 2023. The airport estimated 150 jets were heading to AZ for the game Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)
Neighborhood activists Suzanne Gutierrez and Sue Steinberg are upset about the surge in charter flights and increased air traffic generated at Van Nuys Airport.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)
Charter jets leave a busy Van Nuys airport hours before the super bowl starts in AZ Sunday, Van Nuys CA, Feb 12, 2023. The airport estimated 150 jets were heading to AZ for the game Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)
“LAWA initiated the Vision Study because it has been over 30 years since the last comprehensive planning effort,” for the airport, said Dae Levine, LAWA’s acting director of communications and marketing. “The Vision Study project will … share a vision for VNY that reflects any updates to the land use arrangement that facilitate emerging aviation technologies, sustainability goals and compatibility with the community.”
In order to engage with the community about the Vision Study, LAWA hosted a virtual open house on Feb. 22.
But some residents among the 149 participants who called in said the public was not allowed to react to, or pose questions about, the talks given by airport officials — which had instead been promoted as an open house.
LAWA representatives, including Van Nuys Airport Manager Paul Herrera, presented information about the airport’s background and plans. After the presentations, LAWA hosted a question and answer section.
While LAWA officials did answer some questions from the public at the Zoom presentation, the questions had to be submitted before the event — with no opportunity for follow-up or discussion.
Some participants were upset that LAWA disabled the Zoom chat feature, preventing residents from making written comments or asking questions that all the other participants could see in chat, and comment on.
“I knew they were going to promote it as a community engaged event that LAWA did, when in reality it’s not engagement if there’s no dialogue back and forth,” said Suzanne Gutierrez-Hedges, an attendee of LAWA’s open house, who lives directly west of the Van Nuys Airport.
“It’s very disappointing. It’s frustrating that they manipulate people,” Gutierrez-Hedges said.
Levine defended the one-way format, saying it allowed LAWA to “reach out directly to the broader community, and the open house provided this opportunity.”
One concern among residents is the frequent departures and landings of charter flights at Van Nuys Airport, which residents say have increased in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic. These flights by private charter companies cost wealthy customers and business people upwards of $1,200 an hour to fly in and out of Van Nuys Airport and let them avoid many downsides of flying commercial.
Neighborhood advocates like Timi Romolini, who co-founded the group SoCal SFV with the goal of “fighting for responsible aviation practices,” say the influx of charter flights comes with substantial health and environmental consequences.
Romolini and some residents of “the pocket” said they’re especially concerned about fumes released by the planes.
“These fumes are penetrating and infiltrating the homes on a daily basis and throughout the day,” Romolini said.
Romolini said she doesn’t know the effect of these fumes—since there hasn’t been an environmental impact study conducted for the Van Nuys Airport in 18 years. The last study, done in 2005 but not published until 2010, was conducted long before some residents say they noticed the worsening pollution problem.
“I feel some resentment that they expanded so tremendously without really giving thought to how it would impact the neighborhood,” Linda Jackson, a retired teacher, said.
LAWA said it doesn’t plan to conduct an environmental impact study for its Van Nuys Vision Study “because it consists of research, facilities inventories and data gathering efforts” and “the Vision Study is not a Master Plan.”
Levine said, “LAWA is not in control of the market-driven increases or decreases in aircraft operations and ensures that the noise management programs are designed to minimize noise independent of the operation levels.”
But many residents are raising concerns about the noise levels caused by Van Nuys Airport. In December, 223 people submitted noise complaints to the airport. LAWA representatives said they work to mitigate noise pollution through their Quieter Nights Program, which “encourages jet aircraft operators to avoid flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. whenever possible” — but that program is voluntary.
“It’s become busier in the last several years,” said Lisa Petrus, co-chair of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council Airport Committee. “Since more people are flying private because of the pandemic, there’s been an increase in airport noise.”
Romolini, Steinberg and Gutierrez-Hedges said they are hopeful about Los Angeles City Council motion 22-1489, which is currently pending in committee. Co-sponsored by councilmembers Bob Blumenfield, Paul Krekorian and Nithya Raman, it would require LAWA to provide detailed descriptions of its environmental reviews, community engagement efforts and projects within 90 days.
“[The motion is] a huge slap in the face to LAWA’s lack of transparency and honesty,” Romolini said.
Advocates including Romolini are also calling for the Los Angeles City Council to pass a moratorium on further aviation developments at the Van Nuys Airport.
The advocates say this is especially necessary since the thousands of people who live in City Council District 6, which includes “the pocket” and much of the area impacted by air traffic, don’t have a city councilmember representing them.
The councilmember who represented the pocket and other neighborhoods near the airport was Nury Martinez. But she stepped down from office last fall amidst a scandal over her racist comments in a backroom meeting that were secretly recorded and leaked to the media.
The Jacksons said they want the Van Nuys Airport to make changes so they and their neighbors can return to their previous quality of life.
“I don’t want the airport to go away,” Bill Jackson said. “I just want it to become a good neighbor.”