O'Hare plan sets off 'classic battle' over airport noise

Philip Lindahl lives a scant half mile from O'Hare Airport and is rarely allowed to forget it.

As he tells it, the thundering roar of jets landing and taking off abruptly halts any telephone conversation under way, sets the television shaking, and has virtually put an end to family picnics in the backyard.

''You can't even enjoy your own home,'' he insists.

But Mr. Lindahl, who as the environmental officer for the city of Des Plaines , Ill., hears 30 to 40 similar complaints a month from other disgruntled homeowners, is much more concerned at this point about O'Hare's noise future than the present situation.

The City of Chicago is planning a $1 billion, three-phase expansion program between now and 1995. This plan could step up traffic at the world's busiest airport by almost 2,000 flights a day.

Mr. Lindahl and several hundred other suburban officials and homeowners - who have stated their case in every forum from a lively public hearing in mid-March to signed petitions - do not oppose the expansion so much as the Chicago Department of Aviation's piecemeal approach to it.

Phase One, for instance, calls for construction of a new terminal (primarily for use by Delta Airlines), expansion of concession and security areas in existing terminals, and introduction of a ''people mover'' system to link terminals and parking lots. The city contends that none of these moves would have a significant impact on the environment and that construction on Phase One should get under way by summer.

Suburban opponents counter that the entire expansion program must be evaluated as a whole from an environmental standpoint before any ground is broken.

''It's like saying you don't need a building permit because you're only putting in the foundation,'' says Martin Butler, mayor of Park Ridge, Ill., and chairman of the Suburban O'Hare Commission (SOC). The SOC represents 16 northwest suburbs concerned about the environmental impact of a larger O'Hare.

One reason O'Hare's neighbors are up in arms on this topic is that over the years they have watched as a number of similar reconstruction efforts - from new gates to new cargo facilities - have been added in the same piecemeal fashion with what they say is no environmental evaluation.

''This is like the straw that broke the camel's back,'' insists Richard Troy, counsel for SOC and an attorney representing the village of Niles, Ill. ''The battle lines are drawn. Our feeling is that unless we dig in right here and now - and force the issue of the cumulative effects to be addressed - we'll lose our way.''

Proponents of O'Hare's growth, including a number of Chicago officials, labor , airline, and other business leaders, argue almost as strongly that there is a need to give the project a swift green light.

Fidel Lopez, for instance, who testified at the hearing on behalf of Continental Bank's Area Development Division, stresses that any delay would only increase construction costs. Pointing out that the four suburban townships surrounding O'Hare had a spurt of population growth of better than 300 percent during the 1960s, Mr. Lopez terms O'Hare a free market ''enterprise zone'' that has brought jobs and a vastly improved economy to the region.

Similarly, O'Hare manager Thomas Kapsalis has argued that the airport's expansion will draw $2 billion a year more into the area's economy and will actually lead to less congestion, pollution, and noise on grounds that the added space would allow quieter, more fuel-efficient jets to be used.

Within the last few days the Chicago Department of Aviation submitted arguments of the plan's opponents and supporters to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a decision on whether phase one can proceed without an environmental study. If the FAA decides in favor of such a study, it could bring a delay of two years.

''It would be back to the drawing boards,'' insists Rommy Lopat, community relations director of the Chicago Department of Aviation. He calls the controversy ''a classic battle between noise and jobs and suburb and city.''

However, if the FAA gives a prompt go-ahead, many of O'Hare's neighbors say they are prepared to take the issue to court. Indeed, SOC is involved in a pending court case filed in 1974 by the Illinois attorney general. It charges that the FAA violated the Environmental Protection Act by not requiring an evaluation of a runway addition at O'Hare built in the early 1970s. SOC, says Mr. Troy, definitely would consider filing another suit.

By the best estimates provided by the city and SOC, well over 300,000 Chicago area residents experience significant or severe noise exposure from planes landing and taking off at O'Hare. Many of those residents insist that some protection from the sound be part of the master expansion plan. Mr. Lindahl, a member of the board of directors of the National Organization to Insure a Sound Environment, suggests that night operations at O'Hare could be limited in number and restricted to quieter aircraft. Mayor Butler says a noise-monitoring system should be introduced and that quieter but still safe landing and takeoff procedures could be introduced.

''Chicago up to now hasn't even acknowledged that airplanes made noise - they've just completely ignored the problem,'' he says. ''They've tended to just pat us on the head. It's only in the last two or three years that we've finally begun to make some progress.''

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