Federal court dismisses Centennial Airport’s challenge on Denver Metroplex flight paths

Airport, other local governments opposed FAA’s plan, fearing noise, effect on safety

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/21/21

In what may serve as an anticlimactic end to a years-long dispute between metro Denver governments and the Federal Aviation Administration, a federal court has dismissed Centennial Airport’s …

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Federal court dismisses Centennial Airport’s challenge on Denver Metroplex flight paths

Airport, other local governments opposed FAA’s plan, fearing noise, effect on safety

Posted

In what may serve as an anticlimactic end to a years-long dispute between metro Denver governments and the Federal Aviation Administration, a federal court has dismissed Centennial Airport’s challenge to the FAA’s approval of a plan to reroute metro Denver airplane traffic.

“I think frankly the court punted on this — didn’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole,” Robert Olislagers, the airport’s director, said at a June 17 meeting of the airport’s board of leaders.

The FAA’s plan to optimize arrival and departure at local airports is called the Denver Metroplex project, and it includes Denver International Airport, Centennial Airport and some others.

An FAA environmental-assessment study had looked at impacts the project could have on noise, air quality, wildlife, and historic and cultural resources.

It said the proposed change in flight paths was expected to have “no significant impacts” on those aspects of the project’s area, including metro Denver and the Greeley area.

The FAA released an official final word — a “finding of no significant impact” and “record of decision” — which enabled the agency to move forward with the Metroplex project. The decision was announced in January 2020.

The finding meant the FAA determined that a further review, called an environmental impact statement, wasn’t necessary before the plan was put into action, according to the FAA’s website.

Despite the court challenge, the project went into effect as scheduled on March 26, 2020, nearly four years after the FAA put the plan in motion, according to Centennial Airport. Local officials in the south Denver metro area and beyond were hoping to pump the brakes, fearing increased noise and some pilots flying over what Centennial Airport has argued is unsafe territory.

Centennial Airport; the boards of commissioners of Arapahoe, Douglas and Gilpin counties; and the City of Greenwood Village filed legal action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in March 2020, a few days before the plan’s implementation date. It was the latest outcry in years of complaints local officials had raised about the plan.

While the plan was to directly impact only a handful of airports, potential effects could be felt in an area that includes all, or portions of, 31 counties in Colorado, although the FAA’s analysis indicated only a few dozen people would experience notable noise increases, located in unincorporated Jefferson County and unincorporated Elbert County.

‘Standing’ a sticking point

The court’s dismissal of local officials’ challenge to the FAA’s plan largely rested on legal technicalities rather than on whether the plan would have negative effects on south metro Denver and other areas.

In its decision — dated June 8 of this year — the court wrote that the local governments failed to demonstrate “standing,” or the right to file a court challenge given the circumstances of the case.

The dismissal “is very disappointing because they did not rule on the merits” of the arguments, Olislagers said.

The arguments raised against the FAA’s plan, according to the court’s decision, included the following:

• The FAA insufficiently considered various aspects of the Denver Metroplex plan’s impact on the surrounding area.

• The agency did not “encourage or truly permit community involvement in the Metroplex design process.”

• Gilpin County claims that the agency failed to meet its duties under the National Historic Preservation Act.

The FAA’s NextGen project — an effort to increase safety and efficiency of air transportation across the country — began in 2007 and is expected to be largely in place by 2025. The Denver Metroplex plan is part of the FAA’s effort to comply with the NextGen process. In the court case, the local officials argued that Congress, by mandating that the FAA perform certain studies in connection with NextGen, meant for the agency to suspend any further action on NextGen projects until those studies were completed.

The court roundly criticized the way local officials brought their challenge, sometimes citing a lack of evidence given.

“Even if the city and counties’ theory of standing on behalf of their citizens was without infirmity, it would still be lacking in any support,” the court wrote. “For example, (the bodies) offer no evidence demonstrating how ‘Metroplex will directly affect the efforts of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties to reduce and mitigate noise and other aircraft impacts.’”

The legal action was also filed in part by Mountain Aviation Inc., a charter and owner-operated aircraft services company headquartered at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in the Broomfield area.

The challenge argued that “safety concerns regarding the new arrival and departure procedures constitute injury with respect to operators such as Mountain Aviation,” according to the decision.

But, it continued, “Mountain Aviation has not substantiated those passing assertions” that it was injured, or negatively impacted.

The decision also said the challenge “fails to make any argument, let alone produce or point to any evidence, that Gilpin County has standing to bring its three NHPA claims.”

May be end of line for complaints

At the June 17 meeting of Centennial Airport’s board, officials’ comments signaled that they’re unlikely to contest the FAA’s plan further in court, though it’s unclear whether appealing the decision is entirely off the table.

The now-dismissed action was a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, filed in March 2020 by the Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority — the government body that oversees the airport — and Greenwood Village, Gilpin County and Mountain Aviation Inc.

Arapahoe and Douglas counties filed a separate petition for review in March 2020, and the two petitions were consolidated into one case.

Initially, Centennial Airport had filed a petition for review in June 2019 but later withdrew its case because the filing was premature, and the court formally dismissed the case in August 2019. The new petition bore no difference from the airport’s side of the case, according to the airport.

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