Flight Fight 

Frustrated residents feel powerless as Davis-Monthan nearly quadruples its noise corridor and brings in louder planes

Lisa McFarlane's head is always in the clouds. But that doesn't mean the UA planetary scientist savors military jets constantly roaring above her tidy brick home.

And it's only going to get worse: McFarlane is among thousands of Tucsonans who find themselves in mushrooming sound corridors around the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

In coming years, military flights from D-M are expected to double and feature exponentially louder aircraft. That means expanding slices of the city--roughly from Rita Ranch on the southeast to the UA on the north--soon will become official air corridor zones, and may grow so noisy that they'll be ranked as unfit for residential use.

That should do wonders for property values in McFarlane's Arroyo Chico Neighborhood near Broadway and Tucson boulevards.

"I was always afraid to buy a house for this very reason," she says. "I talk to my neighbors, and they agree the noise is pretty bad right now. I don't think two-to-five-times worse is going to work."

But even as McFarlane and some 8,000 other property owners brace for a brutish financial and aesthetic hit, a cheerleading squad called the D-M 50 pimps the notion that Tucson couldn't survive without slopping at the Defense Department trough, regardless of noise or the cost to taxpayers. It's doubtful that any of these local business mandarins--such as Realtor Michael J. Harris and beer maven Dorothy Finley--live in the affected areas. But they are eager to sacrifice those who do--and promote a local defense industry drawing almost $2.7 billion annually from government contracts. In addition, a recent study found that Davis-Monthan receives more than $560 million in direct government spending each year.

The grinding war in Iraq is certain to push those numbers even higher. Perhaps that's why Finley recently gave $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign, according to Fundrace.org. As it happens, Finley, owner of Finley Distributing, recently received the Defense Department's Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award. She was honored for helping protect Davis-Monthan from regular rounds of base closures.

But just maybe the base shouldn't survive, critics argue, if it makes a growing number of people miserable.

"These changes in zoning are taking efforts to preserve DM to an extreme," says Daniel Patterson, a member of Tucsonans for Quality of Life, a Davis-Monthan watchdog group. The base "will become much louder," he says. "The rezoning area is huge, and I think the city is just trying to push it through."

But Tucson doesn't have much choice, says Sarah More, the city's planning administrator. "Over the last few years, there have been several state bills mandating local governments to plan and zone around military airports for the purpose of preserving them as bases."

Nor is Tucson alone in its drive to protect military bases at all costs. This conundrum dates from post-Vietnam days, when the Pentagon began closing bases in the congested Midwest and Northeast, and expanding them in the wide-open West. But military planners didn't foresee mushrooming Sunbelt populations. As a result, many Western military installations now must wrestle with urban encroachment by shifting flight patterns and using "hush houses" to test noisy aircraft engines. And of these bases, DM is considered to have the most severe encroachment problems.

At the same time, base closures can become blessings. For example, community leaders in Denver predicted economic disaster when the Lowry Air Force Base closed in 1994. But since then, the defunct facility has been transformed into a business, residential and entertainment center--and pumped $4 billion into the local economy.

Developers worked "to re-create the economic impact that was lost after the closing of a major military base," Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry authority, told the Rocky Mountain News. And he says Denver received an added bonus: "Remember, when it was an Air Force base, Uncle Sam didn't pay taxes."

According to Sarah More, the pending changes in land-use codes will nearly quadruple Davis-Monthan's noise corridor, from the current 1,281 acres to 4,685 acres. And so far, the City Council has done little to stand in the way. In February, the council unanimously passed what's called the Joint Land Use Study, and ordered staffers to start implementing the new overflight zones.

These expanded noise corridors are "based on computer modeling developed by the Air Force using F-16 aircraft," says More. "The Joint Land Use Study and state law says that we should adopt these noise contours. So we're in the process of doing that."

The study also highly recommends that Tucson plan "for future changes in operations at Davis-Monthan, which would result in a noisier aircraft," she says.

And there's a caveat: Even if the council doesn't adopt the noise corridor, louder aircraft could be assigned here, says More. "The military can still change missions in the future and issue new noise contours, and then the city would have to adopt those. What we're trying to do is plan ahead."

Councilman Steve Leal, whose Ward 5 includes much of the pending noise zone, is unhappy with how city planners have handled the changes. "I went to a series of hearings at the Tucson Convention Center," he says, "but they weren't really hearings. They were stilted, with a panel up onstage giving a presentation but not taking questions from the audience. The last one I went to, I demanded that they allow people to ask questions and get answers. It damn near took an act of Congress to get them to do that, but they did it."

Leal says he saw a similar pattern when the Tucson Unified School District was considering closing noise-plagued Keen Elementary near Davis-Monthan, and sent notices only to families with children enrolled there at the moment. "We told (TUSD) that's just unacceptable. This school closing was going to affect the whole community."

Keen did close, despite neighborhood outrage. "Sometimes this kind of thing is intentional," Leal says, "and sometimes it's just stupidity." Either way, he says, the city "should just slow the whole (noise corridor) thing down, because the consequences of not doing it right are incredible."

That's a point not lost on Lisa McFarlane, who wonders what will become of her little brick home. "Does this mean the city is slowly going to condemn my house because of the noise, and it will be worth nothing?" she asks. "I just don't know."

McFarlane looks up, her gaze tracing a jet fighter booming overhead. "My sister's husband is a lawyer," she says, "and he's saying, 'Look, you are right. It's called diminution of value, and (the city) can't just do that.' But he says the prudent thing is that I put my house on the market--like right now."

More by Tim Vanderpool


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