California Coastal Commission Staff Approve Navy Helicopter Activity Increase

After reviewing the Navy’s draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and receiving public comments from local government and residents, on June 3 the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) staff approved Navy plans to increase helicopter activity in Imperial Beach skies 30 percent by 2016.

The city of Imperial Beach City Council, Mayor Jim Janney, city staff  and local residents recommended the Coastal Commission ask the Navy to carry out an Environmental Impact Statement first to better assess the impact an increase may have on noise and other factors.

The same request was made by Congressman Bob Filner to the Secretary of the Navy last month.

Examining Imperial Beach, Coronado, Silver Strand State Beach and the San Diego Bay, the Navy’s EA concluded that“public access would not be affected, and that noise effects in public areas from the helicopters are comparable to existing aircraft being replaced.”

The proposal’s wing realignment plan will complete a transition from older helicopters to MH-60R/S Seahawk and Knighthawk helicopters.

It will also increase helicopters based at Naval Air Station North Island from a current 151 to 203, with an additional four squadrons to call NASNI home base.

Training will primarily take place at Naval Outlying Landing Field Imperial Beach.

In response to questions from CCC staff, the Navy said, “Pilots are instructed to avoid or minimize flying directly over cities or beaches below 800 feet, unless other conflicting air traffic precludes operations above 800 feet.”

Two types of noise tests are included in the draft assessment.

CNEL or community noise equivalent level testing evaluates noise levels over a 24-hour period. SEL or sound exposure level testing evaluates decibel levels when a helicopter flies directly overhead.

CNEL testing included in the report stated that the helicopter increase will still contain noise levels within NOLF IB boundaries and will not extend to neighborhoods bordering the facility.

SEL testing was conducted in seven locations in Coronado, Point Loma and along the Silver Strand, but Seaside Point and Oneonta neighborhoods were not included since they are not considered part of the flight path, Navy officials said.

Consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, the Navy agreed any construction activities near the airfield will not occur during the least tern nesting season and is not likely to adversely affect least tern’s or other endangered species in the area.

The Navy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife will continue to monitor sensitive and listed endangered bird species in the area.

Agreeing with the Navy’s determination the project will not adversely affect coastal zone resources, the CCC staff advises the Navy to continue providing outreach and communication to respond to community concerns.

Read the California Coastal Commission’s letter to Naval Base Coronado Commanding Officer Captain Yancy Lindsey and the U.S. Navy’s replies and documentation in this story’s pdf attachments.

A final environmental assessment is due out later this year which may include further noise testing.