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9-18-06 Sun-Times--City gives up

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City reaches deal with FAA over Meigs Field

September 18, 2006

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

The Daley administration agreed Monday to pay a $33,000 fine -- and repay $1 million in federal airport development grants -- to settle claims stemming from Mayor Daley's infamous midnight destruction of Meigs Field in March, 2003.

Monday's settlement between City Hall and the Federal Aviation Administration resolves the long-running dispute in a way that is less costly to Chicago taxpayers than it might have been.

The city used $1.5 million in federal grants and airline ticket taxes to demolish Meigs. The FAA could have imposed penalties of up to $4.5 million -- three times the amount improperly diverted.

Instead, City Hall has agreed to reimburse the airport development fund by $1 million using money from a "non-aviation fund." Payments will be made quarterly.

The deal requires the city to use future airport revenue only to clean up "airport-related environmental contamination" at Northerly Island.

"We agreed the remediation of environmental damage not related to the removal of infrastructure was an appropriate use of airport revenue. We also agreed that any expenditure related to redevelopment of the airport as a park would not be appropriate," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

Finally, the city has agreed to pay the full $33,000 fine imposed by the FAA after Daley failed to provide the required 30-day notice when he sent in a fleet of bulldozers to carve giant X's into the Meigs runway the night of March 30-31, 2003.

The notice is designed to give the FAA time to assess any adverse impact of an airport closing. The fine will be paid within 45 days.

"It allows us to resolve what could have been lengthy and expensive litigation in a way that is very reasonable for both the city and the FAA. It also allows us to use additional funds for environmental clean-up at Northerly Island related to Meigs Field, which is something we consider very important," said Law Department spokesperson Jennifer Hoyle, stressing that the city did not admit wrongdoing.

Steve Whitney, president of Friends of Meigs Field, applauded the FAA for "holding the city's feet to the fire" by requiring them to pay the full amount of the fine imposed for violating the notice requirement.

Congress has since made the fine 10 times as high "because they never want this to happen again," Whitney said.

"The city put pilots and the flying public at risk by the way they did this. There were aircraft inbound to Meigs Field that morning. If anyone had been low on fuel, it could have been a tragedy," he said.

Whitney ridiculed the city's longstanding contention that there wasn't time to satisfy the federal notice requirement. He argued that Daley concocted an emergency to realize his dream of turning Northerly Island into a park.

"It was done this way because the only way to close Meigs Field was to do it illegally. There was too much public opposition for them to do it in the light of day," Whitney said.

Mayoral allies and adversaries have come to view the demolition of Meigs as Daley's political Waterloo, but the mayor doesn't see it that way. He has no regrets.

"Mayors all over the country wish they could close a piece of property like that on the lake. Chicago is the envy of the world.... We're the only city going almost from Evanston to Indiana that's purely open space and recreation for people. No other city has this. I think it's the greatest thing I've ever -- one of the great things I've done besides the public schools," he told the Chicago Sun-Times in December, 2003.

Pressed on why the demolition had to be so secretive, he said, "There would be lawsuits galore. That's why. They'd be in federal court trying to monkey up the water."

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