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Chesapeake legal bill for airport-noise suits reaches $310,000

The Virginian-Pilot
January 6, 2010
By Louis Hansen

George and Margaret Osipovs sued the Chesapeake Airport Authority in 2004, saying the airport’s noise and traffic decreased  the value of their home.

Chesapeake hired a platoon of private lawyers to convince  a judge that  there had been no  legal damage. The city lost, appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, and lost again.

That part of the legal battle cost city taxpayers $256,000 – perhaps several times what the Osipovses will receive in damages.

The Osipovses’ claim was  one of 14 suits filed by homeowners near the airport. Lawyers appear  intent on trying each one. So far, the city has spent more than $310,000 to defend the Airport Authority. A second airport trial is scheduled to begin Thursday.

 A lawyer for the homeowners said the city could have settled the cases for about  $200,000 total before court papers were ever filed. “The Chesapeake Airport Authority did not do the right thing,” said Joseph Waldo, a Norfolk attorney who specializes in property rights  cases.

City and airport officials say settling the case could set a dangerous precedent and encourage other lawsuits. 

In a statement, the chairman of the Chesapeake Airport Authority Board said the residents “have made absolutely no monetary settlement demand.”

Both sides doubt an end will be negotiated anytime soon.

Chesapeake Regional Airport opened in 1977, a small aviation outpost on 450 acres off West Road in the rural Pleasant Grove borough.

West Landing Estates, a collection of about 30 homes on large lots, was built in the early 1990s.  Residents started complaining about noise and air traffic soon after moving in , Waldo said.

In 2003, the airport upgraded to a system known as an instrument landing system, or ILS, according to court papers. It enabled aircraft to land after dark and in inclement weather. Residents say   the technology increased traffic over their neighborhood. The increased noise, they maintain , decreased the value of their homes.

Waldo said  he believes  an offer of $15,000 per household would have satisfied most homeowners. “They would have settled just about every one of them,” he said.

The homeowners sued. The city dug in.

City officials see the airport as a valuable asset  and a key to future economic development in the southern corridor of the city.

The airport is supported by hangar rentals and a fuel fee, but it is not self-sufficient. The city has subsidized the Airport Authority for at least $287,000 annually since 2004. The city has earmarked $310,000 this year to support operations, according to its budget.

After being sued, the Airport Authority hired two private law firms, Kaufman &  Canoles and Pender & Coward, to handle the bulk of the legal work, according to records obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. From August  2006 to last November, the Airport Authority has paid $313,294 in legal work on three cases, according to Airport Authority records.

 Airport Authority officials  argued that the airport has done everything possible to minimize the noise.

Lee Lowder, chairman of the Airport Authority Board, said in a statement that after they were sued, they “had no choice but to assert a vigorous defense of the public interests in operating this airport.”

In 2006, the Osipovses sold their property for more than twice what they paid for it . Waldo said the couple would have received even more  had it not been for the air traffic.

Chesapeake Circuit Court Judge Randy Smith ruled in late 2007 that the airport had legally damaged the Osipovses property without giving them proper compensation. The Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal last January . A jury of  Chesapeake landowners will determine just compensation for the Osipovses at a hearing scheduled for this spring.

City Councilman  Rick West said settling would set a dangerous precedent and encourage lawyers to bring more suits against the city. “You’ve got to stand up at some point,” said West , a council liaison to the Airport Authority Board. “It’s wrong to succumb to lawsuits that have no merit.”

On Thursday, a suit brought by Rodney and Carolyn Crowder is scheduled to go to trial. The couple live  in the 3400 block of West Landing Drive, about 1.5 miles  from the airport runway.

Rodney Crowder said the couple have looked through the skylight in their bathroom and seen the registration numbers of the planes flying overhead.

If given a choice between a cash settlement and eliminating the overhead flights, Crowder said he would choose the latter. But he added, “That’s not feasible.”

The trial has been scheduled for four days. Dates for the other  suits have not been set.