‘To Cripple an Airport, Allow Homes to Encroach’ near Dulles

Debate over residential use under airport flight paths rages on.

Poised to approve the construction of 853 new homes directly underneath Dulles International Airport flight paths, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors finally considered the updated, aircraft-noise contours data for that area. The Board had this information since 2019 but ignored it until now.

So – at the urging of land-use groups and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) – did the Supervisors adopt it, in accordance with their own Comprehensive Plan? Nope. At the July 21 meeting of their Land-Use Policy Committee – chaired by the Supervisor in whose district the homes would be built – they decided to keep using the data from 27 years ago.

“We ought to adopt the 2019 contours,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield). “To pretend they don’t exist is a mistake.” But Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully) disagrees, and she has enough support from the other supervisors to do as she wishes regarding this matter.

Three developers want to build large residential communities in Chantilly’s Westfields area of the Sully District – where, until last year, homes were prohibited within noise contours 60 decibels (dba) and above. But believing the modern contours reflect airport conditions 60 years from now, Smith contends they look too far into the future.

“I support Dulles Airport, but we’re nowhere near [the number of flights] projected for the 2019 contours, so we’re going to keep the old ones,” she said. “We have to look at the full, economic development of the county. I support keeping the 1993 contours and looking at [possible development in] the 60-65 (dba) contours.”

Although the meeting was online, Michael Cooper, MWAA’s manager of state and local government relations, attended it in person, hoping to shed some light on the issue. Herrity acknowledged his presence and wanted him to speak, but Smith said, “We’re not going to do that…I’m the chairman.”

So, curious about what he’d wanted to say, the Connection later contacted Cooper. “We learned in the [county’s] staff report that the county believes the [noise within] the contours wouldn’t happen for 60-90 years,” he said. “But MWAA wanted them to have more information about future airport development.”

AN IMPORTANT PART of it is the number of aircraft operations – takeoffs and landings – per year. For example, in 2006, Dulles had nearly 600,000 operations. “At that time, said Cooper, “We anticipated full buildout of the airport to generate about 740,000 operations/year. But then the recession happened, the price of oil increased and the number of airlines decreased – and we’re just now starting to come back.”

So he believes that the data used by county staff to make its report to the Supervisors didn’t accurately present the whole picture. “I surmise that someone took 2017’s growth, and five years back, and extrapolated that – at that rate of growth – getting to 1 million operations a year wouldn’t happen for 60-90 years,” said Cooper. “But the 2019 update looks to a full buildout of the airport, not a single year.”

United Airlines and international carriers are a big part of the airport’s success, and Cooper expects that dynamic to continue. “United will bring some of its hub operations here from Newark, N.J.,” he said. “And Dulles is the only international airport on the East Coast that has the capacity to grow, because of its number of runways.

“So it has tremendous growth potential, and how fast that happens depends on our ability to bring new flights to Dulles. Hundreds of millions of dollars in time, effort and equipment are invested, so airlines look at all facets of the community where the airport is located. We’re marketing Dulles as being in a region where the airport can continue growing – and quickly.”

Therefore, said Cooper, it’s more important than ever that county leaders have all this information and more to guide them in making future land-use decisions, and he’s eager to share it. It’s also no wonder that all the proposed new homes in Westfields concern MWAA.

“Fairfax used to discourage [residential] development there,” said Cooper. “But last year, it created a path for development in Land Unit J [where the new homes would be built]. Due to the proximity of the proposed development to the location of existing Dulles flight tracks, overhead flights occur 24 hours/daily. And as Dulles continues to grow, the hourly volume of flights will increase in frequency.”

As a result, he said, “We feel reasonably comfortable that the airport will be built out sooner than 60 years. The updated noise contours reflect full buildout at 1 million operations a year, and it would be to Fairfax County’s advantage to use them – because they’re the contours for the airport and are the true contours. The whole point is to give Fairfax a good, scientific, data-driven tool to work from when trying to decide where land-use should occur.”

In a July 30 phone interview, Smith said most airports base their contours on “a 20-year look. I think you have to balance the needs of the county and the needs of the airport. My job is to look at the big picture of the county’s success.” Although, she added, “A big part of that is the airport.”

When Fairfax changed its Comprehensive Plan for Land Unit J in May 2019, the Board voted to consider residential in the 60-65 dba contour. “We looked at what Loudoun [County] did, requiring mitigation [reducing noise levels inside homes] and avigation easements [acknowledging aircraft flying overhead],” said Smith. “We wanted to have them all in place so [homebuyers] could make educated decisions.”

She said residential applications are what developers are proposing for Westfields, and there are already homes nearby. Asked why hearings can’t wait until people can again comment in person, she replied, “A land-use case takes years before it’s built. So if the county had just stopped, all these cases would have gotten backed up. The county’s done an excellent job of getting out information and enabling people to comment, and we have a responsibility to keep the county moving.”

When asked if she’d want to live and raise her children underneath a busy and noisy, airport flight path, Smith didn’t answer directly. Nor would she say why she thinks it’s a good idea to locate homes there.

“People choose to live in different places,” she said. “And it’s fine as long as they understand they’re near the airport and we have attenuation and other measures in place. They might travel a lot and want to be near the airport. People are going to be very aware of the choice they’re making.”

ONE OF THOSE CHOICES could be Boulevards at Westfields – 442 homes in Land Unit J. The developer says it’s in the 59 dba, but MWAA’s new contours place it between the 60-65 dba contours. So before the Planning Commission approved Boulevards on July 15, resident Clyde Miller sent a letter urging it to vote no.

“From my quarter-century experience as an engineer and senior executive at the Federal Aviation Administration, I can testify that the best way to cripple an airport is to allow residential developments to encroach,” he wrote.

When that happens, he explained, “Noise-disclosure documents are a flimsy attempt to rectify an obvious mistake, and they fail the test of time. Sooner or later, the affected residents grow weary of the noise, pressure grows for the airport to ‘do something,’ and shortsighted politicians find a way to curb airport operations.

“The FAA has more than 70 years’ experience managing airport-noise impacts on communities. What local jurisdiction would presume superior expertise on a matter so important to the local economy and the welfare of future families who would be overloaded with noise?”

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