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More than 100,000 votes for mayor in play in 5 wards affected by O’Hare noise

More than 100,000 votes for mayor are up for grabs in the five Chicago wards most impacted by O’Hare International Airport jet noise — just as beefs about such disruptions are skyrocketing.

A fall 2013 switch in O’Hare flight paths has left some Chicagoans bristling at the new barrage of planes over their heads — and worrying that their property values are tumbling as a result.

Tapping into that concern, a new citizen-created website to more easily record those beefs has seen an explosion of activity since the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, known as FAIR, announced it to the public on Feb. 9. The site’s complaints are automatically forwarded to the city’s official site for tabulation.

In February, chicagonoisecomplaint.com logged more than 70,600 Chicago complaints about O’Hare jet noise, data obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times indicated. That’s close to a 20-fold increase from those reported in February 2014 by a city hotline and website that three U.S. representatives and others have charged is flawed and cumbersome.

In addition, close to twice as many Chicagoans — 424 — used the FAIR-created complaint website last month as those who reported O’Hare noise complaints to the city’s system in February 2014, according to a Sun-Times analysis of data from chicagonoisecomplaint.com.

FAIR member Kathy Schonberg protests outside a meeting in September of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission. | Sun-Times Media photo

FAIR member Kathy Schonberg protests outside a meeting in September of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission. | Sun-Times Media photo

The website’s creator, Darrin Thomas, noted that the site’s full potential may not yet be tapped. It has been available to the public for less than a month and has yet to operate in warmer weather, when homeowners can hear more jet noise as they open their windows or spend more time in their backyards, said Thomas, a website manager for the Morningstar investment research firm.

Thomas, a FAIR member, added: “I think fundamentally the issue here is not that there haven’t been many people complaining, but that the city’s website is too difficult to use and they haven’t been utilizing it.”

A Sun-Times analysis of the new website’s February data indicated that the overwhelming majority of complaints from the city were made by people living in five Chicago wards: the 41st, immediately east of O’Hare, where Ald. Mary O’Connor faces a runoff; the 39th; the 45th, where Ald. John Arena faces a runoff; the 40th; and the 38th.

The number of residents with February O’Hare complaints in those wards ranged from 123 in the 41st and 116 in the 39th to as low as 34 in the 38th Ward. But more jet noise is likely ahead for new sections of the 38th Ward — as well as portions of the 36th — because a new parallel runway pointed right at them is due to open in October.

With the biggest investment of most people’s lives — their homes — possibly on the line, the question is whether ire over O’Hare jet noise could affect a mayoral race that one poll this week called a dead heat. Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in an April 7 runoff.

Nearly 103,000 votes for mayor are up for grabs in the five wards with the most jet noise complainants, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicates. That’s the number of registered voters in those wards who did not cast ballots for either Emanuel or Garcia in the Feb. 24 first-round election, which had five contenders for mayor.

Of those 100,000-plus voters, perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 might show up at the polls, said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman, author and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“That’s enough to make a significant difference in a race that’s going to be this close,” Simpson said.

“The noise issue may not be important to every single one of them, but it would be important to a lot of them. They would likely be Chuy supporters if he can get them to turn out,” said Simpson, who has donated to Garcia’s campaign.

Thomas, the FAIR website creator, said the jet noise issue is important to him personally as a 40th Ward homeowner in Lincoln Square; he worries his property values are plummeting.

He and his wife voted for Emanuel in 2011 but switched to Garcia on Feb. 24, “largely based on [Emanuel’s] silence on this issue,” Thomas said. “I don’t believe we are alone in that. I think there’s a lot of people who are being inundated by noise and changing their vote as a result.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at an October 2013 ceremony marking the opening of a new runway at O'Hare International Airport. | Sun-Times Media Photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at an October 2013 ceremony marking the opening of a new runway at O’Hare International Airport. | Sun-Times Media photo

FAIR and Garcia have accused Emanuel of turning a deaf ear to the noise issue. FAIR leader Jac Charlier said the mayor has not even acknowledged more than a dozen requests by FAIR to discuss O’Hare jet noise.

Emanuel’s failure to respond to FAIR’s invitations has resonated with Bella Ventresca — a 38th Ward homeowner who says O’Hare jet noise has changed her life. She can no longer watch TV with her windows open, nor can she enjoy gardening or sleep without a fan to drown out rumbling planes.

She is among the 100,000-plus swing voters in the five most O’Hare-affected wards. Ventresca, also a FAIR member, voted for Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) for mayor in February. In April, she’ll vote for Garcia, she said.

“The mayor has not responded to constituents about this issue,” Ventresca said. “And if he won’t listen to you on something like this, why would he listen to you on something else?”

City officials say Emanuel is doing what he can but his former aviation commissioner conceded to City Council members at one point that “I can’t just magically make something happen.”

No City Council hearing on the issue has been held, despite a more than 1-year-old resolution from Ald. O’Connor and Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) calling for one. Requests from three members of Congress to dedicate a more reliable city hotline solely to O’Hare jet noise complaints have gone unanswered.

Garcia, in contrast, has signed on to FAIR’s five principles of how to move forward on the issue.

Garcia also supports a new effort to seek state approval to keep all four diagonal O’Hare runways open while more parallel ones that are causing the new Chicago jet noise come online. FAIR advocates distributing runway traffic more equitably over existing runways and keeping the diagonal one the city wants to decommission by October in the mix.

“My fear is that Rahm is going to do what [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley did to Meigs Field and bust up a diagonal runway in the middle of the night” to decommission it, said Julie Maupin, a 45th Ward homeowner and FAIR member.

Because she’s too far from O’Hare to qualify for sound insulation, Maupin said, the noise she hears inside her century-old Jefferson Park home with single-pane windows is worse than what she experienced in a previous home with double-paned windows in Rosemont, far closer to O’Hare.

“If I wanted to sell my house, anyone who came and looked at it would notice the airplane noise if they spent more than five minutes on the property,” Maupin said.

Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry said by email that the mayor is committing millions to sound insulation as well as providing eight new noise monitors. He also has asked the FAA to speed up its analysis of the sound level required to qualify for sound insulation and is working with airlines to modify their fleets to reduce noise, Mayberry said.

“The mayor shares these residents’ concerns,” Mayberry said in an emailed statement. Emanuel is “meeting with communities throughout the city and is seeking the votes of all Chicagoans. This includes the communities near both Midway [Airport] and O’Hare.”

FAIR’s Charlier noted that sound insulation currently goes only to homes within the official “noise contour” — but some homeowners complaining about jet noise are “10, 12, 15 miles outside the noise contour” and therefore don’t qualify for help.

Mayberry also lashed into Garcia.

“Commissioner Garcia has accomplished almost nothing throughout 20 years of holding elected office and somehow wants voters to believe he can resolve complicated issues when he offers no record of resolving easy ones. Garcia offers no credible plan to preserve [the] economic engine of O’Hare while addressing issues important to residents,” Mayberry said in an emailed statement.

Garcia campaign manager Andrew Sharp countered that Emanuel has a “record of failing to listen to homeowners” besieged with jet noise, and it would be difficult for him to pivot convincingly at this point.

“If the mayor comes out now and says something about how he’d like to help homeowners get some relief from noise surrounding O’Hare, they will have a hard time hearing him change his position because of all the noise from the passing planes,” Sharp said. “It’s too late.”

An aerial photo of O'Hare runways was on display at a meeting last year of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission. | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times Media

An aerial photo of O’Hare runways was on display at a meeting of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission last year. | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times Media