County wins appeal of airplane noise nuisance ruling
by Barbara Wood / Almanac
Uploaded: Mon, Aug 29, 2016, 10:11 am
San Mateo County doesn’t have to pay a $1,000 small-claims judgment related to noisy planes using the county’s San Carlos Airport, a judge ruled on Aug. 26. He said, however, that the matter should be heard in a court where a judge has the authority to issue an injunction to stop the noise.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John L. Grandsaert said that the issue of noise from Surf Air planes “strikes me as something larger than a small-claims case.” The judge said the case presented by North Fair Oaks resident Adam Ullman was “one of the best small-claims presentations I’ve ever experienced.”
However, he said, “it strikes me that what you’re seeking” is “an end to this noise.”
“You want that stopped. That’s what’s called injunctive relief,” Judge Grandsaert said. “I’m with you in terms of your concerns and your presentation. I’m really not with you so far as why this case should be in small claims court.”
After spending Friday morning listening to Mr. Ullman’s presentation in the Redwood City county courthouse, Judge Grandsaert ruled that Mr. Ullman hadn’t proved specific damages to himself from the Surf Air planes that follow a flight path directly over his home on their way to the county-owned and operated San Carlos Airport, and therefore didn’t have grounds to claim damages.
“I want to make it very clear. … this decision does not have any effect in terms of establishing a precedent of whether an action for injunctive relief is brought in the proper court,” he said. “I can’t grant injunctive relief.”
An injunction is a court order that a defendant stop doing something.
The judge also said that while in most cases the losing party must pay the winning party’s court costs, in this case, “each party is directed to pay their own costs.”
Deputy County Counsel Brian Wong had argued, using a 1907 case cited as a precedent in a 1991 case, that Mr. Ullman needed to prove that he had suffered damage “different in kind and not merely in degree from that suffered by the general public.”
The state law governing nuisances (California Civil Code Section 3493) says that a “private person may maintain an action for a public nuisance, if it is specially injurious to himself.”
Because the case was a small claims court appeal, it was heard by a Superior Court judge, but the parties did not have access to the other sides’ arguments or evidence in advance, as they would in a non-small claims court case. Mr. Wong provided his brief to the Almanac after the case was decided.
The case started in April when Mr. Ullman, a non-practicing attorney and a member of the county’s Airport Noise Working Group, filed a small claims court lawsuit claiming the county owed him $5,000 because it had failed “to mitigate the continuous public nuisance of very loud aircraft flying over my home.”
In June, Judge Pro Tem Dale Major awarded Mr. Ullman $1,000 plus his $65 court filing fee.
On June 29, the county appealed the judgment.
In the county’s trial brief, Mr. Wong said “the county would not ordinarily appeal such a small judgment. However, plaintiff has been publicizing his award and encouraging others to file similar claims against the County, raising the possibility of substantial additional liability.”
The county also argued in its brief that Mr. Ullman had failed to prove he had suffered damages he could be compensated for in a nuisance case.
At the hearing, Mr. Ullman said he has “lost the quiet enjoyment of my home” because of the airplane overflights, and that the noise means he can no longer work from home.
The county also argued in its brief that Mr. Ullman had failed to “prove the connection between his damages and the Airport’s operations.”
Mr. Ullman presented evidence that the turboprop Pilatus PC-12s used by Surf Air are louder than many jets. He said the airport’s data shows that more than 4,900 noise complaints have been filed with the San Carlos Airport so far in 2016. The airport’s data shows that in comparison, in the first six months of 2013, just before Surf Air started using the airport, only 51 noise complaints were filed.
The county is currently working on a San Carlos Airport Aircraft Disturbance Study with the help of an aviation consultant, an aviation noise consultant and a polling firm. The consultants are looking at the practices of other similarly sized general aviation airports and holding public meetings to hear what residents have to say about the noise problems.
In addition, on Aug. 18, the county received a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to pay 90 percent of the cost of a $481,459 study that will look at the existing airport noise conditions and create a plan to “address noise-related impacts in the vicinity of the airport,” San Carlos Airport manager Gretchen Kelly said.
She said that the airport doesn’t meet the noise threshold usually required for such a grant, but that the FAA agreed to fund it because of the level of community opposition.
The study should take about a year and a half to complete, Ms. Kelly said.
Mr. Ullman said he is not sure what he will do next. “This issue needs to be addressed,” he said.
“If the county will not look at the regulations from the perspective of what it can do, rather than what it cannot do, then the community will need to decide how much we want to fight the county to address this.”