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These cities in Miami-Dade are challenging new flight paths over their neighborhoods

A group of cities in northeast Miami-Dade County is taking the federal government to court over a plan to adjust flight patterns in the region, demanding stronger evidence that it won’t create headaches for their residents for years to come.

These cities in Miami-Dade are challenging new flight paths over their neighborhoods

Miami Herald / Aaron Leibowitz / January 7, 2021

A group of cities in northeast Miami-Dade County is taking the federal government to court over a plan to adjust flight patterns in the region, demanding stronger evidence that it won't create headaches for their residents for years to come.

The cities challenging the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sit to the east, west and north of Biscayne Bay, whose airspace is scheduled to become a narrow highway-like path in the sky for many planes departing Miami International Airport under a new system that will affect flight procedures across South Florida.

Under the plan, about 65% of flight departures from MIA that previously spread out on parallel paths from Miami Beach to Miami Shores would be diverted to a slender corridor that crosses North Bay Village and moves north over Biscayne Park, North Miami Beach, North Miami and Miami Gardens.

Steven Taber, an outside attorney hired by the municipalities of Indian Creek and Surfside and a former lawyer for the FAA, said the plan — which is part of a national program known as NextGen — narrows flight paths from nearly seven miles wide to about a half-mile wide.

"What you have is a concentration," he said. "There's been an increase in noise for the people who are under those flight paths."

The FAA concluded in October that the plan would have "no significant impact" on noise in neighborhoods on the ground. But seven municipalities — North Miami, North Miami Beach, Surfside, Bay Harbor Islands, North Bay Village, Biscayne Park and Indian Creek — are not convinced.

"We don't believe the FAA's assessment that this will be a minimal impact to you all," Stephen Helfman, the village attorney for Indian Creek and a partner at Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, said at a Dec. 1 council meeting. "There will be increased flights over Indian Creek. There will be an increase in sound."

A screen grab of a Federal Aviation Administration presentation made available on its Community Engagement website shows the FAA's proposed jet routes would affect Biscayne Park, North Miami Beach, North Miami and Miami Gardens.


In petitions filed with the 11th Circuit last month, the cities called on the federal appeals court to vacate the FAA's approval of the project and to compensate residents "for losses in property values and for home improvements that are necessary due to the implementation of the proposed flight paths."

The cases have since been consolidated and referred to mediation between the cities and the FAA to see if they can reach a resolution before moving to court briefings and a possible hearing before a panel of judges.

In the past, Bay Harbor Islands said in its petition, flights departing MIA to the east — and bound for destinations to the north and west — would travel due east over Miami Beach and ascend to 12,000 to 15,000 feet over the ocean before turning northwest over land.

Under the new plan, the town said, many departing flights would turn north sooner, traveling over the Intracoastal Waterway at lower altitudes of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

The action by the municipalities "speaks volumes to the fact that the community is in opposition of the plan," said Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democratic House member who represents a swath of North Miami-Dade. "This community is coordinating efforts to bring peace back to this corridor, and I will continue to fight with them for the quiet enjoyment of their homes."

The FAA's NextGen program transitions air traffic control from a ground-based radar system to a GPS satellite system that concentrates flight paths into highway-like lanes. The plan will affect 21 airports in Florida, including nine in South Florida, and is set to take effect sometime this year.

After identifying 11 major airspaces in the United States, called metroplexes, the FAA has so far completed seven NextGen projects across the country. The agency says that the narrower and more predictable flight paths help save fuel and improve pilot-to-airport communication, making flying safer.

People who live beneath the new flight paths in other parts of the country have reported unbearable levels of noise that they never experienced before. Some have tried fighting back in court, mostly unsuccessfully, including residents in Northern and Southern California. Phoenix mounted the first successful challenge of NextGen in 2017, forcing the federal government to reverse its planned changes.

"The hope is that, because of the arguments we have, we can get the FAA to modify the flight procedures so they're not impacting the residents," Taber said. "Our goal is to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they do protect the people on the ground."


Indian Creek, a tiny island village whose residents include multiple billionaires and will soon include Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, is prepared to play a critical role in the cities' fight.

The village is splitting costs of about $50,000 with the town of Surfside for Taber's legal services and for a consultant to conduct an independent study of the potential noise impacts.

The FAA's own analysis suggests there would indeed be noise increases in much of northeast Miami-Dade, with some of the biggest spikes in an area where several departure routes converge over the Keystone Islands neighborhood of North Miami.

But the anticipated effects don't reach the government's threshold for "significant" impact, a level that some critics say is nearly impossible to meet. The FAA utilizes a decibel metric called Day-Night Equivalent Sound Level, which measures the average noise level in a given location over a 24-hour period.

Some residents of Keystone Islands, for example, would likely hear their daily average noise levels rise from about 47 decibels to more than 49 decibels, according to the FAA. But that's nowhere near the FAA's "significant" threshold of 65 decibels.

Boston University statistician Cindy Christiansen, a critic of the FAA's noise measurement system, studied the noise near the home of Mike Eaton, who has organized efforts against the NextGen plan and lives in Sans Souci just south of Keystone Islands. She found that, to raise the current noise level from 48.86 to the FAA threshold of 65, Eaton would have to hear 47 times the number of planes he hears daily.

Eaton said last summer that he hears about 120 jets over his home each day, beginning around 6 a.m., slowing down around lunchtime and picking up in the late afternoon until midnight.

In a court filing, Indian Creek and Surfside accused the federal government of gaming the system by gradually shifting flights to their new paths before the NextGen plan had even been approved. That way, they claim, the FAA created a "false baseline" when measuring expected noise increases under the plan.

"Flight changes are already negatively impacting [residents'] well-being and livability in the area now," said Wilson, the Democratic congresswoman. "I've received countless emails and calls complaining of unbearable flight noise day and night, low-flying planes, and black soot from fuel, happening now, today."

The FAA has denied that claim, saying flight tracks over South Florida haven't changed since 2006. Looking specifically at the Keystone Point community in North Miami, the FAA said the number of flights overhead per day has increased only slightly in recent years and that the average altitude has increased.

"Neither the FAA nor [Miami International Airport] have identified any data to support complaints of increased noise in North Miami," the agency said.

But some residents say the FAA's claims don't jibe with their experience. Eaton told the Miami Herald he noticed a change in late 2019.

"All flights going to North American destinations are now being run up the bay. They didn't used to do that," Eaton said. The FAA, he added, is "making it extremely difficult for us to get the data to prove that they didn't used to do that."

Carol Keys, a North Miami councilwoman who lives near Keystone Point, said planes "are literally flying directly over my head on a nonstop basis." On one recent night, she said, the noise woke her around 3:30 a.m. She said airplane noise wasn't a problem at her home until last year.

"Sometimes it's so loud, I'll run out and say, ‘What the hell is that?' " she said.


While many of their neighbors stand to hear more airplane noise under the NextGen rollout, most Miami Beach residents are likely to experience a decrease in noise, the FAA's analysis shows. That's especially true in the South Beach and Mid-Beach neighborhoods.

A 2019 version of the FAA's plan would have sent planes directly over the southern tip of South Beach and nearby Fisher Island, mirroring previous flight paths. But after feedback at public workshops, including from Miami Beach staff, the FAA altered its plans to instead send flights over an industrial part of Virginia Key.

Miami Beach paid a consulting firm, Kimley-Horn, to analyze the potential impacts to the city. In July 2019, the firm said that it anticipated "no adverse impacts to Miami Beach" in light of the updated plan, according to a memo from former City Manager Jimmy Morales. Instead, Morales said, the changes "are anticipated to benefit the city from a noise, visual, air quality and environmental perspective."

The FAA has denied claims that flights that previously went over Miami Beach will now be routed north over Biscayne Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway. But residents and officials in nearby cities are skeptical.

North Miami, whose population is 63% Black and where one in five residents live below the federal poverty line, wrote in its petition that the FAA "chose to implement its FL Metroplex Project in communities with less financial means to be able to file challenges."

Some residents have argued that flights departing Miami International Airport to the east should go straight across Miami Beach and briefly over the Atlantic Ocean before turning north, saying that would spare more densely populated areas from the effects.

But at public workshops last June, FAA officials suggested there were safety and efficiency reasons for avoiding that path, and characterized the decision to send planes over the middle of Biscayne Bay as a compromise.

"The discussion about pushing airplanes straight out off of the Atlantic Coast would probably not make us any friends in Miami Beach," said Jim Arrighi, the Metroplex program manager for the FAA. The agency's plan, he said, is an "equitable solution for the east side of the airport."

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said he wasn't aware of any formal lobbying efforts by his city in Washington to influence the plan.

"I don't think we created the FAA position or convinced them to do something they weren't inclined to do," Gelber said. As for the effects on nearby cities, Gelber added: "Nobody said, ‘Oh, put it over there.' "


Elected officials from the town of Bay Harbor Islands did successfully lobby representatives in Washington, including Sen. Marco Rubio, to stop the FAA from moving one flight path over the town instead of over Oleta River State Park and Haulover Park.

Councilman Joshua Fuller delivered the good news at a March 2020 meeting, calling it a "huge win" for the town and drawing applause from the council chambers. But town officials say they weren't aware at the time that the FAA's plan would affect Bay Harbor Islands in other, detrimental ways.

Already, the town's court filing claims, residents can "hear the roaring engines and feel their homes and businesses shake as a result of low-flying planes, which no town resident has ever experienced before."

During a Zoom call in November with local activists and elected officials, Fuller said that in addition to the efforts in court, "the key here is gonna be continuing our lobbying efforts in D.C."

Helfman, the Indian Creek village attorney, made a similar suggestion at the Dec. 1 council meeting.

"I think we may have to call upon some of our friends who represent us in Washington," he said, "to see that this thing goes well for us."