Plane Noise Issue Status: Slater Agrees to Work Pro Bono for Now

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At the last Town Council meeting on November 16th, Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros commented that the $25,000 limit Council agreed to pay former Transportation Director Rodney Slater to help with our air noise problem had been reached and that Slater’s firm of Squire, Patton, Boggs had offered to do a bit of pro bono work in order to finish the process. Since there has been little mention in public meetings of what Slater or the local Air Intrusion Relief (AIR) group has done regarding this project and wondering just what the Town has received for its $25,000, we took a look at pubic records and did a little digging for our readers.

Council first took a stance on the issue of aircraft noise in 2012. After working with residents for several months, on January 14th, 2013, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach passed a resolution in support of recommendations made by the local grass-roots group Air Intrusion Relief (AIR) concerning aircraft noise on the island. That resolution was subsequently passed by the Lee County Port Authority and the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) before going to the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) regional offices in Atlanta and then to their national office in D.C. In 2014, the FAA ruled that aircraft noise levels on our island were not significant enough for them to approve the measures recommended by AIR and approved by both Town Council and the Board of Lee County.

At their meeting on October 6, 2014, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach agreed to ask Town Manager Don Stilwell to enter into negotiations with Slater, who was brought to the Town by Dr. Steven Bailey of the local grass-roots group, Air Intrusion Relief (AIR). The total amount to be spent would be $25,000 or less, and Hosafros would act as Council liaison.

On January 20, 2015, Slater flew to Fort Myers Beach from Washington D.C. and met with AIR members before making a presentation to Council at their workshop, where he told them that – despite the FAA’s ruling in 2014 – there are more things that could be done to alleviate the Town’s problem with air noise.

“There are people who I could talk to, but I am not the decision maker,” Slater said at that meeting. “We would have to make a very persuasive case, and we would have some work in front of us to rethink the case that we’re making and help the decision makers understand how that can provide some redress while still recognizing the needs of others.”

He also told Council that he thought representatives from the Town will need to go to D.C. to meet with the Director of the FAA, and that he and his firm would arrange the meeting.

After the meeting, Slater joined Mayor Anita Cereceda, Councilmembers Summer Stockton and Hosafros at an informal dinner with AIR members to which the press was not invited.

On February 2nd, Slater sent a written engagement agreement to Stilwell, asking that the first $12,500 be paid as a retainer, with the balance due by March 1st. On February 16, Hosafros welcomed Slater with an email outlining the issues brought up by AIR and set up an initial call with him on February 25th.

On March 25th, Patricia Doersch, an attorney at Squire Patton Boggs and an associate of Slater’s, sent AIR member Tom Babcock’s PowerPoint “Town of FMB Aircraft Data Summary and Request for Action’ to Bert Simpson, Assistant Manager of the FAA’s Paradise (Orlando) District Office. Along with the PowerPoint, Doersch passed along a request from Babcock that Simpson focus on reducing the total number of flights over the beach.

“It is only since the last RSW Part 150 Study was issued (in 2011) that AIR has had availability to Webtrak data that illustrated how different the arrival routes to Runway 06 are from Runway 24,” Babcock wrote. “The data clearly shows how much farther aircraft must travel to land on Runway 06 than to land on Runway 24 when flying a downwind approach. If the pattern were the same for Runway 06 as for Runway 24, only about 5% of the aircraft would fly over Fort Myers Beach rather than greater than 90%. Furthermore, we see many other advantages for making this change. The Town is requesting: (1) to make arrival routes and procedures the same for Runway 06 as Runway 24. The remaining two requests by the Town were known at the time of the last Part 150 Study and were included as recommendations, but our data shows little or no improvement. They are: (2) to require all aircraft to fly above 3,000 ft. over Estero Island (the Town of Fort Myers Beach) whether under VFR (visual) or IFR (instrument) conditions, and (3) make Runway 24 preferred from 10pm to 7am.”

Doersch responded on April 2 that Simpson was willing to talk with residents on the beach and that he understands the desire to reduce flights over the island.

On May 4, Babcock asked for the status of that meeting, and Doersch replied that Simpson has been working to educate airlines and air traffic controllers to use an ‘inside-the-bay’ visual approach to Runway 6 to reduce flights over the island, and that he recommends inviting airport officials for the planned meeting.

After Simpson and Doersch attempted to set a meeting over the summer, Babcock explained that he would be away until early October, and the meeting was set for October 15th with the following participants: Bert Simpson and Air Traffic Control head at RSW, Joseph Molsen; the Port Authority; Hosafros and Squire Patton Boggs representing the Town and AIR.

Following the meeting on October 15th, Doersch and Slater indicated that Simpson had committed to the following three actions on behalf of the Town:

1.) Approaches to Runway 06 vs. Runway 24: “Simpson agreed to examine why the arrival approaches to Runway 06 and Runway 24 differ so significantly, in terms of the most common intercept distance from each runway and the most common release point distance from each runway,” Doersch wrote. “Bert understands that, if the arrival approaches to Runway 06 mirrored those of Runway 24, in terms of most common intercept distance and release point distance, there would be significantly fewer overflights of Fort Myers Beach. Accordingly, the Town seeks an explanation of the feasibility of making Runway 06 approaches mirror Runway 24 approaches. Bert stated that he would ask the FAA’s flight standards office to examine this.”

However, Simpson explained that, “all approaches are restricted by FLOWCAR (a redesign of Florida’s west coast airspace that was implemented in 2008) and that any significant changes to RSW approaches would not occur in the near term, but would await any airspace redesigns currently under examination as a part of the South Central Florida Metroplex Study.”

2.) Flight Heights: Simpson will examine whether or not approaches to Runway 06 can be increased to an altitude of 3,000 feet.

3.) Runway 24 as the Preferred Night Runway: Bert agreed to arrange a high-level meeting with airline representatives to ensure that all pilots using RSW know that Runway 24 is the preferred night runway, and to make clear that runway preference extends until 7am, not 6am.

After seeing the summary, Babcock – on behalf of AIR – thanked everyone for attending but said he was ‘somewhat disconcerted’ that a clearer path to change cannot be made.

“The restrictions of FLOWCAR and how it was changed after implementation in October 2008 in response to complaints by other communities is what is being challenged by the Town of Fort Myers Beach,” he wrote. “The Town was not informed of these changes before they were implemented and we feel the Town was not treated fairly. Also, Simpson was not clear on who would be involved to implement changes…we are hoping that you (Doersch) and Rodney can help facilitate the change process.”

This prompted Doersch to suggest a final conference call to follow up on the strategies discussed and to ensure they would be addressed as quickly as possible, a call that would not be billed to the Town since the $25,000 limit had been met.

“In the terms of next steps, this is what I would recommend,” she said. “We should ask Simpson to map out a path forward with these concerns: identify all the players who should be examining each of our concerns; identify all external factors that may effect the response and ask for a timeline in addition to Bert’s commitment to touch base with Rexann again in six months. Also, to focus on the Town’s request for action on substantiative changes to flight approaches – rather than attempting to revisit how FLOWCAR was implemented – continues to be the smartest strategy for moving forward.”

On November 16, at 10:30am a conference call was held between Hosafros, Doersch, Slater and Babcock, where the four discussed the list of goals set at the October 15 meeting – including Babcock’s additional concerns – and strategized as to when they might be accomplished.

Following that call, Slater has continued to work on the Town’s behalf at no charge. On November 20th, he and Doersch participated in a conference call with Simpson and FAA Southern Region Administrator, Dennis Roberts.

Doersch then sent an email saying that Roberts has agreed to run radar data on RSW and talk with his staff to see if any approach changes are feasible, and would like to arrange a conference call between himself, Simpson and Hosafros sometime during the week of December 7-11th.

“Additionally, Dennis informed us that his work regularly brings him to Florida and he is happy to arrange a visit to Fort Myers Beach to meet with you,” Doersch wrote to Hosafros and Babcock.

Hosafros told us that was the last communication she’s had with Slater’s office, and said she is impressed by his continuing efforts to help our community.

Keri Hendry Weeg