When Donna Okray Parman and her husband, Bruce, retired and moved from Michigan to their home near Black Hawk in 2015, they were sure that they’d found the peace and quiet they were looking for in small, sparsely populated Gilpin County. But the quiet didn’t last long.
“Two years ago I noticed there were jets coming over the house, more than a typical day,” says Parman. “And then this past summer it got so ridiculous that I finally wrote my county commissioner and said, ‘What in the world is going on?’”
Curious to know if anyone else nearby had noticed the increased jet noise, Parman posted a message on NextDoor. Before long, she’d received over 200 responses.
Parman and fellow Gilpin County residents soon found themselves navigating the maze-like world of federal air-traffic management policy, trying to make sense of a decades-long series of changes known as NextGen, a program that the Federal Aviation Administration calls “the modernization of U.S. airspace.”
FAA officials say that the nationwide redesign of air-traffic routes planned under NextGen, which was first announced in 2007 and is not expected to be fully completed until 2025, will take advantage of new air-traffic control technology to make flight paths more efficient, reducing travel times, delays, fuel use and pollution.
But residents on the ground in places like Gilpin County say they’re paying the price, as air-traffic routes that were once more dispersed begin to concentrate along specific corridors. They fear things are about to get even worse with the implementation of the Denver Metroplex project, the next phase of NextGen implementation in the skies above the Front Range.
Metroplex projects are targeted redesigns of the airspace in and around large metropolitan areas with multiple airports; the FAA has completed eight of them so far, and Denver is next on its list. The agency issued a draft environmental assessment, a major step toward finalizing the Denver Metroplex plan, in April, and held twelve public meetings on the proposal in early May. But most of these Metroplex “workshops” were held in Denver suburbs like Aurora, Broomfield and Greenwood Village, and the closest to Gilpin County was held in Boulder.
“None of us knew about it,” Parman says. “Our county commissioners didn’t alert us. Nobody alerted us to this.”
A spokesperson for the FAA says the draft assessment, along with a final assessment released in November, was "sent electronically to the Gilpin County Public Library upon release."
"With a study area that covers roughly a third of the state and includes scores of local governments, it was not feasible for every individual local government within the Denver Metroplex Project to have an individual workshop," the agency added in an email to Westword.
The public comment period on the draft Metroplex assessment closed on June 6; Parman and other Gilpin residents say they didn't get wind of the proposal until July. Since then, they've formed a citizens' group — Gilpin Residents Refuse Increased Flight Traffic, or GRRift — to spread awareness and lobby local and federal officials to step in.
Parman and other concerned residents packed a meeting of the Gilpin Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, December 10, where commissioners echoed many of their concerns and assured residents that they were "preaching to the choir." In November, the board wrote to FAA administrators to express their concerns over the "lack of communication in our county," and urged the agency to correct course.
“To not come here is a tremendous oversight and disservice to all of us,” Commissioner Gail Watson said Tuesday. “We really need them to come and talk with us.”
Representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents Gilpin County in Congress, also sent a letter to FAA administrator Stephen Dickson in November, requesting that agency officials reopen the initial public comment period or host a public meeting in Gilpin to answer questions from residents. Parman says no meeting has yet been scheduled.
“Gilpin is home to the James Peak Wilderness Area and Golden Gate Canyon State Park — both of which are treasured public lands that would be greatly disturbed by an increase in air traffic overhead,” Neguse wrote in the letter. “I request that you take the concerns of these constituents into account as you complete the Denver Metroplex project and consider the best flight paths.”
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Parman says she isn't opposed to all air traffic over Gilpin, but believes it should be dispersed more evenly over the mountain communities west of Denver. She and other residents also claim that the FAA's methods for determining noise impacts may come up short in areas in Gilpin where there's little ambient noise to begin with and where unique topography means that the roaring air traffic can echo in deep mountain valleys.
Denver International Airport recorded more than 600,000 aircraft operations in 2018, up ten percent since 2015 — and the FAA stresses that its NextGen efforts are responding to this growth, not driving it. "Air traffic levels are a function of community demand for air service and the industry responds to serve that demand," the agency says. "The Denver Metroplex procedures are to accommodate demand safely and efficiently."
But Metroplex projects have proved controversial in nearly every city in which they've been proposed, with noise complaints often soaring after implementation. The City of Phoenix sued the agency over the Metroplex project implemented there in 2015, and a federal court ultimately struck down the plan, faulting the FAA for failing to gather enough community input. Parman and other Gilpin residents say they're prepared to go to court, if necessary.
“If it takes a lawsuit, so be it,” Parman says. “Whatever it takes to protect this county, and this state.”