By Leo Wilson
If you reside in Bankers Hill, people will often ask: “How bad is the airplane noise?” or “Do you live under the airplane flight path?”
Almost all of Bankers Hill is under a flight path that leads to San Diego International Airport (SDIA). It is one of the defining features of Bankers Hill; in most areas you can look up and see airplanes flying overhead, often at a very low altitude.
Even if you don’t see the airplanes, you can hear them — often loudly, even when you are indoors. Excessive airplane noise and flight path safety concerns are a prominent feature of land-use planning in Bankers Hill. Often buildings must incorporate noise attenuation measures, and building heights and certain types of land uses are restricted in some areas.
There are actually two distinct airport flight paths overlaying Bankers Hill. Both are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and are subject to other federal, state and local agency regulations as well.
- Main SDIA Flight Path: This flight path passes east-west over southern and central Bankers Hill. It overlays about two-thirds of Bankers Hill, particularly the area south of Laurel Street. The SDIA Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan (ALUCP) is the major policy document regulating this flight path.
The ALUCP was adopted pursuant to state law, and is incorporated into San Diego’s current General Plan. It requires the city minimize excessive aircraft-related noise when it effects residential and other noise sensitive areas, and limits the height of buildings and certain type of land uses allowed under the SDIA flight path.
Pursuant to the ALUCP, proposed development projects under the flight path must be reviewed by the local Airport Authority to determine if they are consistent with the ALUCP. A determination of inconsistency by the Airport Authority will stop a project, unless it is overridden by a two-thirds vote of the San Diego City Council — which must make a specific finding that the proposed project will protect the public health, safety and welfare; and minimize excessive noise and safety hazards in areas around the airport.
A separate city regulation that also applies to the main flight path is the city’s Airport Approach Overlay Zone (AAOZ), which creates a 50-foot buffer zone under the FAA flight path. The AAOZ completely prohibits any new development intruding into the AAOZ buffer zone. It has no exceptions, but does not apply to the first 30 feet from ground level.
After its adoption in the 1990s, the city failed to enforce the AAOZ. The Bankers Hill/Park West Community Association, which I chaired, demanded it be applied and enforced during the approval process of several controversial projects in Bankers Hill beginning in 2004.
- Small Plane Flight Path: This flight path passes north-south, and is used by small planes to land at SDIA — which, in most cases, are not permitted to use the main flight path.
Small planes arrive from the north, and fly south through Bankers Hill above Fourth/Fifth/Sixth avenues and Balboa Park. They then make a sharp west turn when they arrive at the main SDIA flight path, and proceed to land at the airport. Often these small planes fly only a couple hundred feet above the ground when utilizing this flight path. Many residents and those working in tall buildings in Bankers Hill wave to the pilots as they fly by at very low altitudes.
This north-south flight path is part of the FAA 14 CFR Path 77 “horizontal surface” flight path, and is regulated primarily by the FAA. It begins at approximately 160-170 feet above the ground surface in north Bankers Hill.
Any proposed project that may impact this FAA flight path is required to obtain a consistency determination from the FAA prior to being approved. The FAA determines whether the proposed project creates a potential obstruction to air space, or if it creates a visual or electronic interference with air navigation.
The airport safety regulations that apply to Bankers Hill are complex, but are a necessary and vital part of protecting Bankers Hill, as well as the public-at-large, and contribute to making Bankers Hill a vibrant, urban community.
— Leo Wilson is administrator for Metro San Diego CDC and is a Bankers Hill resident.