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US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Rules Federal Law Preempts Local Airport Regulations

2016 Case Notes

December 29, 2016

“Noise policy must be carried out at the national level.”  So says the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in overruling the Town of East Hampton’s attempt to locally control airport noise.  The Second Circuit’s quote comes from section 49 USC § 47521 (2)-(3) of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (“ANCA”).  The Court was asked to decide an appeal in Friends of East Hampton Airport, Inc. v. Town of East Hampton, 2016 WL 6543356 (2nd Cir. November 4, 2016). 

The town of East Hampton operates a local airport, which has been designated by the FAA as a regional airport facility significant to the national aviation system.  Id. at  *2.  After a decade of increasing airport noise, the Town passed three local ordinances designed to reduce noise at the airport: (1) a general aviation curfew; (2) a “noisy aircraft” curfew; and (3) a two-operations-per-week limitation (“One Trip Limit”).  Id. at *5.  The Friends of East Hampton Airport, Inc. and the other plaintiffs are a group of aviation businesses that use the airport.  Id. at *1.  The Plaintiffs sued the Town, seeking an order enjoining enforcement of the three local ordinances based on claimed violations of ANCA and the Aviation Deregulation Act of 1978 (“ADA”), among others. 

The United States District Court granted the Plaintiffs’ request to enjoin the One Trip Limit ordinance, but declined to enjoin the curfew ordinances.  Id. at *6.  The district court specifically found that ANCA did not preempt the curfew ordinances. 

On appeal, the Second Circuit ruled that ANCA’s procedural requirements for local noise or access restriction apply to all public airport proprietors, not just those receiving federal funding.  Id. at *10.  Specifically, the Second Circuit found that the plain language of §47524(b) referring to Stage 2 aircraft and §47524(c) referring to Stage 3 aircraft establish “procedures that airport proprietors must follow … to impose any noise or access restrictions on air operations.”  Id.  The court also found that “§47533(3) places no limits—and certainly no funding eligibility condition—on the FAA’s statutory authority to enforce [those] procedural requirements.”  Id. at *11.

The Second Circuit also confirmed that statutory findings and legislative history of ANCA, among other reasons, demonstrate it “comprehensively and mandatorily” applies to all public airport proprietors.  Id at *12.  Quoting subsections (2) and (3) of §47521, the court noted such statutory findings were “particularly useful in determining congressional intent.”  Id. The court further held that the procedural requirements “prevent uncoordinated and inconsistent restrictions at the national level, while still allowing local interest in aviation noise management to be considered in determining the national interest.”  Id.  Looking at ANCA’s legislative history, the court found that Congress enacted ANCA to resolve the problem of a “patchwork quilt of local noise restrictions” that only thwarted national airport development.  Id.  In fact, the Second Circuit found that many legislators opposed ANCA precisely because of its comprehensive, mandatory, and preemptive nature.  Id. at *13.

In short, the Second Circuit found that every aspect of ANCA’s legislative and regulatory scheme demanded the conclusion that the Town of East Hampton was required to follow ANCA’s procedural requirements in implementing local noise and access restrictions.  Because the Town had not followed those requirements, the Second Circuit reversed the district court and remanded the matter for the entry of a preliminary injunction “barring enforcement of all three laws.”  Id. at *17.

Bruce Wallace practices with Nexsen Pruet’s business and consumer litigation group in Charleston. He represents a variety of banking and financial institutions in real estate litigation, commercial litigation, and mortgage foreclosures. He also represents insurers and corporate clients in bad faith and coverage issues, professional liability, business litigation (including disputes involving partnerships, limited liability companies, and closely held companies), and probate litigation matters (including trusts and estates).