FROM THE window of his Central Northeast Neighbors coalition office at NE 87th and Sandy, neighborhood planner Bill Barber can see the F-15 fighter jets spiraling down to land. The scene leaves him conflicted. "On the one hand, it's Oregon Air National Guard and it's jobs that are close to home," he says. "On another hand... why do this maneuver over a neighborhood area?"
Last year, the Oregon Air National Guard decided to save time and money by testing flight patterns for its F-15 fighter jets closer to its Portland home base.
Unfortunately, that also puts the planes close to Northeast residents' homes, in communities where some residents have long pushed the airport to rein in noise. While it's debatable whether the new noise created by the fighter jets is disruptive, several groups of neighbors have been making noise of their own, complaining they were bypassed in the decision to allow the planes' flights.
One of the main vehicles for neighbors' communication with the airport is the Citizen Noise Advisory Committee (CNAC). Last summer, CNAC voted to allow the Port of Portland to stage a test of the corkscrew-like landing pattern over the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods. On rare days when the weather is right from October to the end of February, the F-15s swoop high over the neighborhood up to 12 times a day. Recognizing neighbors' irritation over noise, the Port informed CNAC members that it would reconsider the tests if there was major neighborhood opposition. But neighborhood leaders say no one let them know they could complain, or where to take their complaints.
Kathy Fuerstenau, chair of the Cully Association of Neighbors (CAN), did not hear about the tests until after they were approved. "How are you supposed to know who to complain to if they didn't do any outreach? Maybe they didn't want to send us a postcard."
At CAN's September meeting, Cully's board unanimously voted to oppose the test flights and started a petition in opposition to the flight tests, a petition that now has over 100 signatures.
Fuerstenau, meanwhile, is not worried about the noise of the fighter jets so much as the slight potential that one could crash into her house: In early December a military plane training over a suburban San Diego neighborhood crashed, killing three on the ground. "We're just saying, if you're doing this kind of training, it should be on bases, not over residential neighborhoods," she says.
Erwin Bergman, who served on CNAC for over 10 years, says he was surprised to discover the committee had approved the tests. He was on vacation at the time of the vote, which he says he would have opposed. Bergman, who describes himself as the "lone ranger" of CNAC who's willing to push neighborhood demands at the Port, decided to hand in his resignation.
"The reason I resigned is that CNAC was not doing a damn thing," says Bergman. "They were not using any initiative and I got tired of presenting things I thought needed to be done." Bergman says the Port is a "very powerful force" and he got sick of casting the only opposing vote against its plans.
Bergman's resignation sparked another mini-controversy about CNAC's communication with the neighbors it represents. CNAC appointed his replacement via the mayor's office, circumventing the Central Northeast Neighbors coalition.
Barber, at Central Northeast Neighbors, felt they had been left out of the loop again. The swift replacement "gives the public the impression that the appointment was rushed and made in virtual secrecy," Barber wrote in an email to the neighborhood associations, which have asked Bergman to stay on CNAC until there's a clear replacement policy for naming his successor.
For their part, CNAC Chair Maryhelen Kincaid says the board discussed the tests at three separate meetings and used their best judgment in approving the F-15 flights. During the tests, CNAC can gauge whether the jet noise is actually too loud to handle. "The full intent of the committee was to go out and talk to the neighbors after we had some preliminary data," Kincaid explains. "We've gotten feedback on both sides—I think we would be unwise to judge the community based on who is the loudest." Kincaid said early measurements showed that the F-15's high overhead flights created only 70 decibels of noise on the ground—less than the roar of a passing bus.
Which may explain why, after the Port began publicizing its airport noise complaint phone number more widely, it still received relatively few call-in complaints about the F-15s: only three in October and four in December. There were no tests in November.