Darrin Thomas introduced himself to Rahm Emanuel as the mayor campaigned for re-election at a downtown train stop in February.

Identifying himself as an app-developer helping thousands of people lodge O’Hare Airport noise complaints with the city, Thomas asked the mayor what can be done to help homeowners upset about more planes and loud jet noise across the city’s North Side?

“O’Hare is a powerful economic engine, and we can’t put it at risk,” Emanuel said matter of factly, according to Thomas’ account of the conversation. The mayor then turned to shake hands with other commuters, he said.

That was the last time Thomas or other anti-noise activists heard directly from Emanuel on the O’Hare issue. A group made up largely of Northwest Chicago residents called Fair Allocation in Runways (or FAIR) says it still hasn’t met with the mayor after 14 written and public requests for a sit down since the summer of 2013.

Even Congressman Mike Quigley, whose 5th District includes residents affected by noise, prodded the mayor to meet with the group representing thousands of homeowners. After a more than year-long public campaign by the residents, a bill passage in Springfield and the defeat of an aldermanic ally, Emanuel finally agreed that city aviation officials will meet the homeowners. The mayor, so far, won’t commit to a personal meeting with the residents.

Unlike past O’Hare battles, which pitted nearby suburbs against Chicago City Hall, this battle is different. It’s largely being waged by North Side neighborhoods — long known as home to many of the city’s police officers, firefighters and other municipal workers — concerned that the noise levels threaten home values while damaging the quiet, leafy ambience of their communities.

Even Near North neighbors within the vicinity of Emanuel’s Ravenswood residence are complaining.

“As I share a number of their concerns, I ask that you give [the residents’] meeting request your every consideration,” Quigley said in a March letter to Emanuel.

“You can’t inundate a few neighborhoods with these flights,” Quigley said in an interview. “I have people saying ‘I didn’t move to the airport – the airport moved to me.’”

No reasons were given for Emanuel’s snub of the meeting invitations, FAIR members said. Emanuel declined to talk to the Better Government Association. The mayor’s press representative said in a statement that he’s discussing the problem with federal aviation officials and local politicians.

“Mayor Emanuel is sensitive to residents’ concerns and will continue to work to ensure O’Hare remains an economic engine for our city, while maintaining a high quality of life for those who live near the airport,” the statement said.

At the center of the conflict is a change in flight patterns leading to an increase of hundreds of loud planes a day flying east and west — a more than doubling in some cases — across North Side neighborhoods over the past couple of years. The residents fear even more noise is on the way when additional runways open at O’Hare, including one scheduled to begin operating in October.

Current O’Hare Flight PathsFuture O’Hare Flight Paths

The fixes aren’t simple but the truly disturbing trend, say the residents, is Emanuel’s refusal to listen to an important concern for tens of thousands of North Side homeowners and other taxpayers.

The neighbors scored a couple of recent wins by forcing the meetings with city aviation representatives and by pushing legislation that would allow a greater number of runways to stay open at O’Hare. The thinking is that additional runway options may cut down on the noise but even the bill’s sponsor admits it may not be enough to fix the headache for many residents. Gov. Bruce Rauner has not acted on the bill.

“I don’t want to give people false hope,” said Illinois Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago), who sponsored the runway bill.

But the bill proved to be controversial as city of Chicago officials warned lawmakers that any changes to O’Hare expansion plans may have adverse economic consequences, Mulroe said.

When talking about O’Hare, the mayor touts his commitment to economic development, which he said would create more revenue for the financially troubled city and ultimately help families.

But homeowners say their property values are declining, a potential revenue loss for the city. What’s more, residents say their lives are being made miserable by noise. The mayor’s seeming indifference to a large group of people further bolsters the image of an aloof CEO who can’t face his own constituents when they ask tough questions.

“We vote – we pay taxes and he has never ever given us the courtesy of a meeting,” said Lisa Ziems, a North Park homeowner and FAIR member.

Albeit a much different set of circumstances, Emanuel faced similar criticisms after deciding to close 50 schools in Chicago. While Emanuel argued that he had to make a tough decision regarding a financially struggling school system, the closures left many residents with the impression that Emanuel cares far more about the vitality of a downtown business district than he does about neighborhoods.

“This gets comical after a while,” said FAIR founder Jac Charlier, referring to City Hall’s almost two-year refusal to respond to requests for meetings. “At least acknowledge us.”

The homeowners say they understand the economic significance of O’Hare, which is going through an almost $9 billion expansion and “modernization,” but they want Emanuel to consider ways in which noise can be minimized, including preserving a pair of older runways set for closure and revising takeoff and landing strategies.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano

Jet noise was a campaign issue in the aldermanic race in the 41st Ward and is cited as one of the reasons newcomer Anthony Napolitano, a Chicago firefighter and Edison Park resident, beat incumbent and Emanuel ally Mary O’Connor.

“That election showed City Hall what a big issue it is,” Napolitano said referring to the noise problem for his ward.

To that end, he said he’s hopeful that Emanuel is willing to listen to the residents affected, though he hasn’t received a personal commitment from the mayor. Chicago’s 41st Ward has a sizable population of local government workers, especially cops and firefighters.

Controversy Under Daley

Plans for O’Hare were set in motion long before Emanuel took office.

Along with private parking meters and underfunded pensions, airport noise is another thorny legacy issue Emanuel inherited from the Daley administration.

First announced in 2001, the airport modernization program was begun under Mayor Richard M. Daley. The program touted two major goals: Become a more efficient airport and expand to handle increased plane traffic. The airport is less efficient and the number of takeoffs and landings has actually decreased in the last decade and a half, critics say.

The city says O’Hare pumps $38 billion into the regional economy every year and further O’Hare expansion would increase that annual figure.

Charlier said he doesn’t dispute the economic impact of O’Hare but his group’s members don’t believe their lives or home values should be devastated. Napolitano also stressed that folks in his ward aren’t anti-airport.

“People aren’t looking to hurt O’Hare,” Napolitano said. “They’re just looking for a remedy.”

That remedy can be difficult for one person, even the mayor of Chicago, given that the city, the Federal Aviation Administration and the two dominant airlines at O’Hare (American and United) all have a stake in the decision making for any major changes to the airport.

“Emanuel has a great deal of influence,” said former Chicago Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney. “But it’s an inherently difficult problem because of the stakeholders involved.”

Loney, who was involved in prior O’Hare noise-reduction strategies as aviation commissioner in the late 1990s, said the city should reconsider its program for helping homeowners to reflect the changes at the airport.

“Anytime you embark on a long-term plan for an airport, you have to constantly review it,” Loney said.

Coalition of Neighborhoods

FAIR is a coalition of almost 30 community groups that include new and veteran neighborhood activists.

It represents city firefighters and police, both active and retired. The group also includes members with backgrounds in aviation, engineering, computer programming, financial analysis and a number of other specialized skills.

Darrin Thomas

Thomas, who holds a Ph.D. in management information systems and is a senior product manager at Morningstar Inc, used data he collected himself to show that noise complaints to the city are more far reaching than many people realize — even North Side lakeshore residents are complaining, he said.

Thomas created an app and website, chicagonoisecomplaint.com, that helped North Side and suburban Chicago residents place almost 1.7 million complaints to the city just since February. Thomas’ app expedites the process of registering complaints with a city website, he said.

The inspiration for the app came to Thomas after he noticed a barrage of planes over his Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Angry City Workers

Like a number of city workers who flocked to the city’s Northwest Side, Don Walsh moved to Indian Woods in 1991 to find a suburban-style neighborhood within the city’s borders. The now-retired Chicago Fire Department chief liked the tree-lined streets, closeness to the forest preserves and the overall quiet that his neighborhood offered.

Last year, Walsh received an 18 percent reduction in the assessment of his home after appealing based on the basis of airport noise hurting the value of his home.

Jet noise wasn’t cited as the reason for the reduction, Walsh said. Rather, Cook County officials agreed his taxes should be lower because of recent comparable home sale prices.

The Cook County Assessor’s Office said in early May that it will study the effect of jet noise on property values. Lower property values result in lower taxes for the city, another problem for a mayor concerned about spurring revenue growth.

Walsh, Napolitano and others say they worry that the noise will ultimately drive people from the Northwest neighborhoods. Napolitano said he’s concerned about an increase in for-sale signs he sees in his ward.

City-backed Group Ineffective?

FAIR isn’t Walsh’s first pass at trying to engage the city on the complaints of North Side homeowners. He initially participated in the airport noise debate through a city of Chicago-funded organization that was formed with the promise of providing representation of people affected by plane noise.

Other than overseeing applications for residential soundproofing, the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission hasn’t been useful in its 19-year history, some FAIR members say. The commission now numbers more than 50 members and has an annual budget of just over a quarter of a million dollars.

The panel was created after a coalition of suburbs fought Chicago in court on the noise issue. Offering mayors a seat at the table, the city sought to calm upset residents. On its website, the commission says it “believes in replacing confrontation with cooperation by bringing together” all the parties involved, including the city of Chicago, suburbs, U.S. aviation regulators and the airlines. At O’Hare, United Airlines and American Airlines control the vast majority of airport gates.

The commission also says it has decreased aircraft noise, a claim that angry residents reject.

After a new O’Hare runway significantly increased the jet noise above his Edison Park home, Steve Lushniak said he attended a half dozen meetings of an O’Hare noise commission created by the city of Chicago in the late ‘90s. He said he felt like his problems weren’t being taken seriously.

“I couldn’t go anymore — my blood pressure was rising,” Lushniak said.
For residents like Lushniak, lives are changed following O’Hare runway expansions.
It’s common for planes to buzz Lushniak’s house at 6:20 in the morning, he says. Loud jets can fly over his house as late as 11 p.m., he adds.

The planes “tell me when I can go to bed at night and they tell me when to get up,” Lushniak said. “I used to work from home sometimes. That’s not an option anymore.”

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at bchase@bettergov.org, on Twitter @BrettChase or (312) 821-9033.

Airplane image courtesy of Flickr user UnfinishedPortaitMaker.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano image courtesy of Facebook.