Report 2000-126 Summary - October 2000

San Diego International Airport at Lindbergh Field:

Local Government, Including the San Diego Unified Port District, Can Improve Efforts to Reduce the Noise Impact Area and Address Public Dissatisfaction


In 1972, the county of San Diego (county) declared the San Diego International Airport at Lindbergh Field (Lindbergh Field) a "noise problem airport" in accordance with state regulations. Lindbergh Field's owner and operator, the San Diego Unified Port District (port district), applied to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for a variance to the noise standards. Caltrans granted a variance but stipulated that the port district proceed with efforts to reduce the number of incompatible properties within the area surrounding the airport, known as the noise impact area. Also, state law requires local governments to develop a comprehensive land use plan to ensure that future developments near Lindbergh Field are compatible land uses. Over the past 25 years, the port district has applied for and received seven variances and each time has taken some actions to address Caltrans' requirements for reducing the noise impact area. However, its delays in implementing sound-attenuation programs, combined with the city of San Diego's (city) failure to implement certain provisions of a comprehensive land use plan, have prevented further decreases in incompatible land use within Lindbergh Field's noise impact area. Incompatible land use within the noise impact area includes such properties as residences and schools.

Public concerns about preserving historic homes near the airport have delayed the port district's residential sound-attenuation program, designed to decrease the impact of noise in existing structures. The port district and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have, however, provided about $14 million to the San Diego Unified School District, which upgraded six schools in the noise impact area. In contrast, the port district has not upgraded the Marine Corps Recruit Depot because the U.S. Marine Corps is ineligible to receive FAA funding for sound attenuation, and the port district did not seek an alternative until 1999.

The city's failure to consistently implement certain provisions of a comprehensive land use plan is partly responsible for the lack of further reductions to Lindbergh Field's noise impact area. In February 1992, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) adopted such a plan, with the approval of the port district and the city, requiring that any development near Lindbergh Field be compatible with the surrounding noise level, such as parking, manufacturing facilities, or amusement parks. The city's role was to ensure consistency between its general plan, zoning ordinances, and building regulations for properties within a specific zone and the comprehensive land use plan. The city was also to obtain avigation easements when required. Avigation easements are one way of converting land use from incompatible to compatible. Avigation easements grant the port district unrestricted aircraft access to and from Lindbergh Field and limit the property owner's ability to initiate legal action related to aircraft noise. However, for at least five years, the city took no action to ensure that its ordinances were consistent with plan provisions. Although the port district informed the city of new incompatible land uses in the noise impact area in January 1997, the city again did not take action promptly. The city waited until October 2, 2000, to vote to include Lindbergh Field in its ordinance addressing land development restrictions near airports. The port estimates that more than 28,000 residents live within Lindbergh Field's noise impact area.

The port district receives an average of about 1,000 complaints a year about the location and intensity of aircraft noise. The most common complaints are related to loud aircraft overhead and aircraft disregarding the regular departure route. By law, the FAA has the sole authority to manage the air traffic control system and navigable airspace in the United States and to establish flight operational procedures. Therefore, the port district cannot restrict the access of noisier aircraft or dictate the appropriate departure route and has no authority to resolve these types of complaints. The port district uses its noise-monitoring system to determine whether these complaints are valid. Although some community members consider the noise-monitoring system data suspect, we found the data to be accurate. However, contributing to the community distrust is the cessation of public meetings by the county's Noise Control Hearing Board (noise board), which enforces the terms and conditions of Lindbergh Field's variance to the noise standards and audits the port district's noise-monitoring data. Also, the port district's Airport Noise Advisory Committee can improve its interaction with the community.

The SANDAG, port district, and local agencies must consider not only how to deal with current noise issues, but also how to handle the projected increase in total aircraft operations at Lindbergh Field, estimated to increase by an average annual rate of 2 percent through 2020. At this rate, Lindbergh Field will reach its maximum aircraft operating capacity of 275,000 by 2011. There have been numerous studies about relocating the airport, but thus far there has been no final decision regarding the expansion or relocation of Lindbergh Field.


To further its efforts to reduce the impact of aircraft noise and to respond effectively to complaints, the port district should improve its community relations efforts. One possibility is to establish working groups that include local residents. It also should continue to work with the U.S. Marine Corps to resolve noise-related issues at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

To fully implement the comprehensive land use plan, the city should continue to work toward making its planning, zoning, and building regulations consistent with the plan's provisions. For example, it should ensure that it obtains the necessary avigation easements. In addition, the SANDAG should comply with the plan requirements for ensuring that the city's general plan and ordinances agree with the land use plan.

To provide independent verification of the port district's noise information, the county should reactivate the noise board.

To address projected growth in air traffic, the SANDAG, local agencies, and community groups should determine whether to move the airport.


The San Diego Unified Port District generally agrees with our recommendations. The city of San Diego, the county of San Diego, and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) also generally agreed with our recommendations. The SANDAG, however, disagreed with our recommendation that it and other local entities should decide whether to relocate the airport. The SANDAG states that this recommendation is unnecessary because there are public policies in place to address it. Additional comments made by each entity and our responses begin on page 31.