F-35 noise holds up housing as discord grows between Madison and airport officials – Wisconsin State Journal

Lucas Robinson | Wisconsin State Journal, May 21, 2024
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The arrival of F-35 fighter jets to Truax Field is jeopardizing some city efforts to develop housing near Dane County Regional Airport.

Discord is growing between Madison and airport officials over the way land is used near the airport, in particular with the proposed 900-unit Raemisch Farm development, which is now facing delays that could last years because of F-35 noise, according to emails obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal through an open records request.

The military’s decision to use Madison as home base for a fleet of F-35s, which are louder than the F-16s they replaced, prompted a noise study that concluded a larger area around the airport is now considered incompatible with residential life under Federal Aviation Authority standards.

Because of that expanded zone, the airport wants broader authority under state law to formally object to more rezoning proposals if new boundaries for an “airport affected area” are expanded by the county.

Under federal rules, the airport is also financially on the hook to pay for expensive noise insulation in buildings exposed to problematic noise levels.

That includes the Raemisch Farm site, where jet noise and a 74-year-old deed restriction the airport has on the property are delaying the development.

Internally, county and airport officials have expressed consternation about the city pushing for more housing close to the airport, according to emails.

Among themselves, county and airport officials shared a statement from Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in 2020 calling “the threat of excessive noise pollution” for people living near the airport a “pressing concern.”

The mayor wrote that in a public letter to federal representatives regarding the impending U.S. military decision, heavily lobbied for by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to station the F-35s at Truax.

“The city does seem to have changed their mind on how bad they think having housing near an airport is and how much of an impact it has on those who live there,” Carrie Springer, a staffer in the Dane County Executive’s Office, wrote in an email to colleagues in February.

The city maintains it has not changed its stance on housing near the airport. In 2021, a City Council panel on environmental justice opted against suggesting limits on housing construction near the airport, instead recommending housing developments that get city financial support include noise insulation.

“If we don’t keep up with housing demands, all residents will be faced with less affordable housing,” City Planner Dan McAuliffe said. “The impact of that must be weighed alongside the impacts of noise, and I believe we have consistently balanced those two factors.”

Studies have found that prolonged exposure to environmental noise like aircraft can increase the risk of hypertension, stroke and heart attacks, disturb sleep and impair cognitive performance.

During a meeting between the airport and the city that month, airport spokesperson Michael Riechers told city officials that more low-income housing by the airport undermines the goal of lessening the “disproportionate impact airport noise has on low-income and people of color.”

Of an unnamed city planning official, Riechers wrote, “His response was basically ‘yes, but the housing shortage.’”

No other development has been more derailed because of jet noise than the Raemisch Farm development at 4000 Packers Ave., just west of the airport.

The 64-acre former farm is slated for a $150 million redevelopment to include single-family homes, apartments, commercial and open space.

The City Council twice voted against rezoning the site over worries about future jet noise. But in September 2022, elected officials finally acquiesced after a pledge from Greenstreet Development Inc., the developer, to include pricey noise mitigation in the site’s buildings.

But a 74-year-old deed restriction held by the airport for an avigation easement on the site is becoming entangled with the airport’s responsibility to address noise, causing extensive delays to the Raemisch project. An avigation easement gives an airport the right to restrict what gets put on a property, and other powers.

In 1949, a deed restriction gave the airport ownership of the easement on part of the Raemisch site. That restriction, which included an 85-foot height limit for buildings, was put on the books because the airport planned a runaway extension toward the site. The runaway extension eventually was abandoned but the deed restriction remained.

At least a year and a half before the council’s blessing, attorneys for Greenstreet learned of the deed restriction when it searched the title for the property, according to emails obtained by the State Journal.

Greenstreet declined the State Journal’s request for comment.

After guidance from the FAA, airport officials eventually learned that to get the restriction removed, the airport is entitled to be paid fair-market value for the land that includes the easement.

An ongoing study of noise around the airport also determined that a minuscule part of the Raemisch site is exposed to noise deemed incompatible with residential use under federal standards.

But that’s enough to make a difference.

Lawsuit looming?
In March 2023, airport attorney Adam Ussher told Greenstreet’s lawyers that the ongoing noise study must be completed and accepted by the FAA before a fix for the development’s deed restriction is figured out.

“It could easily take a couple of years before there is sufficient information for the airport to evaluate the study results and further assess the question of noise computability,” Ussher said. “To avoid any misunderstanding, I want to make clear that the airport is not committing to releasing the deed restriction pending the results of the (noise study). Noise compatibility is simply the most pressing concern at this time.”

In January, Airport Director Kim Jones wrote in an email that the airport had been threatened with a lawsuit over the Raemisch site. As of late April, no lawsuit has been filed over the property, said Dane County Corporation Counsel Carlos Pabellon.

In a statement, Rhodes-Conway called for a quick resolution to the disputes surrounding Raemisch.

“Here, we have a development approved to create up to 900 units of housing on the North Side,” the mayor said. “Most important, it creates more opportunities for homeownership — something we have seen very little of in recent years and that there is pent-up demand for.”

Future uncertain

Beyond Raemisch, the airport’s potentially growing say in how housing is built comes as the city is finalizing its Northeast Area Plan, which includes the airport and some surrounding areas.

A draft of the plan calls for mixed-use development along much of East Washington Avenue. Some parts of East Washington, between Aberg and Fair Oaks avenues, are within the 65-decibel boundary that requires the airport to fund noise insulation for buildings.

But that boundary is not the only area that could come under increased oversight by the airport.

In its ongoing noise study, the airport recommends expanding an “airport affected area” under county ordinance to include nearly all of the North, East and Far East sides of the city.

Within that area, the study calls for defining a zone where new construction should be limited, which includes all of East Washington Avenue from East High School to East Towne Mall. The limited construction zone seeks to preempt the possibility that noise inconsistent with residential areas could change and expand in the future, said Riechers, the airport’s spokesperson.

If the airport objects to rezoning, a two-thirds vote by the City Council can overturn it.

The airport does not have any record of past objections to rezoning in the existing airport affected area, Riechers said.

“We would only do so if there were a serious concern or if the project violated the state’s height-limit zoning ordinance,” he said. “It is always our intent to work positively with our local municipalities in these matters.”

In March, the mayor’s office warned in a letter to the City Council that airport restrictions on development create unpredictability for developers wanting to build housing near the airport.

“We fear that a lack of development in this area would have a devastating impact on housing availability and housing prices overall,” the mayor’s office said.


This aerial photo shows part of the Raemisch Farm site that’s included in a zone exposed to an average of at least 65 decibels of aircraft noise each day. The inclusion of the site in the zone has led the airport to delay resolving a stringent deed restriction on the property that has impeded development. DANE COUNTY REGIONAL AIRPORT