WASHINGTON -- The government wants to dramatically reduce the allowable height of potentially thousands buildings near airports around the country -- a proposal that is drawing fire from real estate developers, local officials and members of Congress who say it will hurt property values.
The Federal Aviation Administration proposal, supported by airports and airlines, is driven by encroaching development that limits safe flight paths for planes that might lose power in an engine during takeoff. Planes can fly with only one engine, but they have less power to climb quickly over obstacles.
Local business leaders, who see airports as a means to attract development, say they fear office towers and condominium complexes will have to be put on hold until developers and zoning boards can figure out what the agency's proposal means for their communities. In Tempe, Arizona, for example, local Chamber of Commerce President Mary Ann Miller said she fears almost any new building in the city's downtown would face new restrictions because the community is located near the edge of Phoenix Sky Harbor's runways.
"Coming out of a very long recession, we hate the idea of stopping some growth," she said.
In Florida, the Miami City Commission passed a resolution two weeks ago that said the proposal "may be detrimental to the overall growth and economic prosperity" of the city's downtown and urged the FAA to conduct a study of its potential economic impact before moving forward.
Airlines have to plan for the possibility that a plane could lose the use of an engine during takeoff even though that doesn't happen very often. As more buildings, cellphone towers, wind turbines and other tall structures go up near airports, there are fewer safe flight paths available. Current regulations effectively limit building heights based on the amount of clearance needed by planes with two operating engines.
Airlines already must sometimes cut down on the number of passengers and the amount of cargo carried by planes taking off from airports in Burbank and San Jose in California, and in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, and near Washington, D.C., among others, so they will be light enough to clear obstructions if only one engine is available, said Chris Oswald, vice president of the Airports Council International-North America.
The problem is exacerbated in hot weather when air is less dense and planes require more power during takeoff. Bigger planes that carry lots of passengers and cargo on lucrative international flights are especially affected.
Airports worry that the problem could cost airlines enough money that they'll find some routes unprofitable and eliminate service, Oswald said.
The FAA's proposal would change the way the agency assesses proposals to build new structures or modify existing structures near 388 airports to take into account the hazard that would be created to one-engine takeoffs. For example, under the proposal future buildings constructed 10,000 feet from the end of a runway and within a designated flight path would have a maximum allowable height of 160 feet instead of the current limit of 250 feet, according to an analysis by the Weitzman Group, a New York real estate consulting firm. As the distance from an airport increases, the allowable building height increases as well. The proposal could affect buildings as far as 10 miles from an airport.
Planes taking off usually follow one of about a half-dozen possible flight paths. To limit the number of buildings and other structures affected by the proposal, the FAA is recommending airports and local zoning boards work together to select a single flight path for each runway that planes can use in the event that an engine quits, said John Speckin, the FAA deputy regional administrator in charge of the proposal. The new height limits would only apply to structures in that path, he said.
"We're trying to create a balance of the aviation needs and the development needs in the local community," he said in an online briefing Wednesday.
But even with that limitation, thousands of existing and planned structures would be affected, said Peter Bazeli, who wrote the Weitzman analysis. Existing buildings along the path would not have to be altered, but a property owner who wanted to increase the height of a building or replace it with a taller building might be out of luck.
"Just one flight path could cover hundreds and hundreds of acres in densely developed areas," Bazeli said. "You are going to be bumping up against some very valuable property rights."
The FAA doesn't have the authority to tell owners how high a building can be. But property owners near airports are supposed to apply to the FAA before construction for a determination on whether a proposed building or renovation presents a hazard to navigation. Erecting a building that the FAA says is a hazard is akin to building in a flood plain -- insurance rates go up, mortgages are harder to get and property values decrease. Local zoning laws often don't permit construction of buildings determined to be an aviation hazard.
The FAA's proposal has created "a real estate and developer firestorm," said Ken Quinn, a former FAA chief counsel who is representing several developers. "A single building can be worth $100 million and more. If you are talking about lopping off whole floors, you can ruin the economic proposition and you can destroy the viability of the building, so you are talking about easily a $1 billion in economic impact."
Cellphone tower owners and operators are also concerned.
"A change in the maximum allowable height of infrastructure surrounding airports ... could degrade wireless service coverage and capacity," PCIA, a trade association for the wireless industry, said Wednesday in a letter to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members.
The real estate and wireless industries want the FAA proposal to be put through a formal rulemaking process, which can take years to complete. When an agency proposes a new rule, it also has to show that the benefits outweigh the cost to society. That makes it easier for industries to challenge the rule. FAA officials have chosen instead to treat the proposal as a policy change, eliminating the need to meet rulemaking requirements.
A bill recently introduced by Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, whose Northern Virginia district includes densely populated areas around Reagan National Airport near downtown Washington, would require the FAA to conduct a formal rulemaking. In a letter earlier this year to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Moran and three other lawmakers expressed concern that the proposal would have a "detrimental effect on the development and marketability of airports as well as hinder job creation and shrink the tax base of local governments."