Lawmaker troubled by proposal to limit building heights near airports

A proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to place new limits on the heights of buildings that are close to major airports has troubled a lawmaker who represents a Virginia district that is in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The FAA is considering reducing the height limit that is known as the "One Engine Inoperative" rule, which is based on the maximum attitude that can be reached by planes that have lost power in one of their engines.

The agency has not recommended a specific new height limit yet, but Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) is already arguing that the changes would negatively affect places in his state like Arlington and Alexandria, which are near Reagan Washington National Airport.

“Aviation safety must be a top priority and that’s why the current height restrictions are more than adequate,” Moran, who represents both parts of northern Virginia, said in a statement that was released by his office earlier this month.

“This proposal is a solution in search of a problem that could cost jobs and hinder development in many major cities," Moran continued.

The FAA's current rules require buildings that are located within three nautical miles, or approximately three and half miles, of airports to be fewer than 200 feet above ground level. 

The agency said it is necessary to consider lowering the height limit now because areas around major airports are becoming more developed.

"Structures as diverse as microwave towers to office buildings and wind turbines are being built in ever-increasing numbers near many airports," the FAA said in its notice. "While developers may erect these structures, the FAA must consider the impact of the structures on the safe operation of flight and their impact on the safe, efficient use and preservation of the navigable airspace and airport capacity and efficiency."

The agency noted it does not have the power to prevent developers from constructing new buildings, even if the lower height limit is eventually implemented. 

"The FAA is not authorized to grant or deny construction projects," the agency said in its notice about the proposed height limit change. "Rather, Part 77 defines a number of obstruction standards that are used to identify obstacles that may have an adverse impact on the navigable airspace.

"Even upon the issuance of a Determination of Hazard, the developer is free to continue construction," the agency continued. "However, zoning authorities and private insurers may be reluctant to permit construction of the structure, given the FAA's determination that it poses a hazard to navigation."

The FAA issued a notice of proposed policy about the potential change on April 28 and is accepting comments until June 27.

The agency noted that existing buildings that are taller than the new limits would be grandfathered in, but the more stringent rules would be applied to changes to those structures.

Moran said the change would still impact more than 4,000 buildings that are currently nearly 388 airports in the U.S.  He addd that approximately 170 of the buildings that are higher than the new proposed limit are located in northern Virginia.

Moran has introduced a bill to require the agency to go through a process for changing regulations that is followed by other agencies, which would require a cost-benefit analysis, among other things. 

"This legislation would require the FAA to adhere to the administrative rulemaking procedures that govern all agencies contemplating such a far reaching decision,” he said.  

Moran is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, and the primary campaign for candidates to replace him is scheduled to take place on June 10.