Adams County got just what it asked for in its lengthy fight with Denver International Airport — a judge’s order that DIA pay $33.5 million for noise violations that impacted nearby neighborhoods during a three-year period starting in 2014.
The ruling from Jefferson County District Judge Christie Bachmeyer was handed down on Friday but became public Monday. The judge concluded that DIA didn’t properly monitor noise emanating from aircraft using the airport, violating an intergovernmental agreement it had with the county that goes back to the late 1980s, when the airport was built.
Adams County maintains that DIA relied on an arcane and outdated noise modeling system — rather than actual ground measurements — to gauge airport noise. Bachmeyer ruled that methodology wasn’t in keeping with the agreement DIA had made with surrounding communities.
“Since Denver has not remedied the violations as required by the agreement, Denver must now make a $500,000 payment for each of the 67 … violations over the three-year period from 2014 through 2016 in the total amount of $33,500,000,” the judge wrote in her order.
Adams County, along with Thornton, Aurora and Brighton, sued the airport in 2018 over the noise issue, which impacted long-established neighborhoods west and south of the airport. The case went to trial in Jefferson County last fall.
It was the latest legal challenge over noise levels at DIA in a string of lawsuits filed against the airport dating back nearly 30 years. Denver had agreed to measure and minimize aircraft noise as part of its annexation of land in Adams County back in the 1980s for the sprawling 53-square-mile airport, the county argued at trial.
“Adams County was willing to take on the burdens of having an international airport as long those burdens were mitigated,” county Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said Monday.
O’Dorisio praised the court for handling such a complex and challenging case. Bachmeyer’s ruling ran 41 pages.
“The court came down on our side after going through mountains of data and diving deep into technical details,” O’Dorisio said. “Denver and Adams County work through so many issues together — this is one issue when we needed a third party to work through it.”
Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for DIA, said Monday that airport leaders are “disappointed in the decision and are considering next steps.” She didn’t say if that would include an appeal.
DIA has taken a combative tone regarding Adams County’s noise complaints in the past, contending that it had already given the county and its cities $40 million in excessive noise payments, dating from the airport’s February 1995 opening through 2011. Those payments, DIA said in a filing it submitted to the court last year, were based on the airport’s same noise modeling system that was at issue in the latest trial.
Adams County and its cities were fully aware of the system DIA was using during the years they were collecting millions in noise levies, DIA asserted. Airport officials alleged that as aviation technology has advanced and planes have become quieter, the municipalities feared that money would dry up — precipitating the most recent litigation.
The issue over aircraft noise at DIA came to prominence once again this year in an unrelated case, when the airport and Denver sued Aurora to stop plans approved by that city that would allow a developer to build single-family homes within a mile of the airport’s next planned runway.
“This decision will allow housing in an area with far greater noise exposure” than in established neighborhoods around the airport, DIA said in a January news release accompanying the announcement of the lawsuit.
O’Dorisio said he hopes the relationship with DIA will be smoother going forward.
“Whatever Denver decides to do in monitoring noise in the future, the method of modeling needs to be accurate, reliable and the data needs to be accessible,” he said.
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