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Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association v. Hinson

November 21, 1996









Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

No. 96 C 5793

Before CUMMINGS, BAUER and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges.

CUMMINGS, Circuit Judge.

Joan B. Gottschall, Judge.


DECIDED NOVEMBER 21, 1996 *fn*

Plaintiff Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and others *fn1 sued David R. Hinson as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago to enjoin the closing of Meigs Field airport, which was scheduled to take place at 10 p.m. on September 30, 1996, when the City's 50-year lease with the Chicago Park District for the Meigs Field site expired. Plaintiffs are users of Meigs Field, taxpayers and persons affected by additional noise and pollution allegedly caused by diverting flights from Meigs Field to Midway Airport in Chicago. The State of Illinois was permitted to intervene as a party plaintiff. Plaintiffs sought an injunction against the closing of Meigs Field and attendant relief. On October 1 the district court denied a preliminary injunction, resulting in this appeal.

Meigs Field is located on Northerly Island. The north end of the island is occupied by the Adler Planetarium and the airport runs from approximately the middle of the island to the south end. From 1920 to 1922 the island was built upon submerged lands in Lake Michigan east of Grant Park in Chicago. Illinois transferred title to the submerged lands to Chicago's City Park Commissioners in 1903 "for public purposes," to be maintained and controlled "in the manner provided by law for the government and maintenance of other parks * * * under its control." Title to the island was transferred to the Chicago Park District upon its organization in 1933.

In 1935 Illinois enacted statutes permitting the Park District to lease Northerly Island to the City of Chicago for airport purposes and permitting the City of Chicago to lease the island from the Park District for those purposes. Those statutes do not, by their terms, obligate the City or Park District to operate an airport. In 1946 the City and the Park District entered into a 50-year lease to permit the city to construct and operate an airport, now known as Meigs Field, on Northerly Island. It was then contemplated that the island would have to be expanded through additional landfill, and therefore in 1946 the City and the Park District sought permits to construct the landfill for an airport. The Illinois Department of Public Works issued a permit in March 1946 approving the expansion of Northerly Island for airport purposes, and in 1947 the United States War Department issued a permit to do the necessary work for such purposes. However, the permits do not obligate the City or Park District to operate an airport. Thereafter the City constructed additions to Northerly Island and built the Meigs Field airport, which opened in 1948 and operated until September 30, 1996. Prior to its closure, Meigs Field was accommodating approximately 51,000 operations and transporting approximately 81,000 passengers yearly.

This lawsuit was filed on September 11, 1996, after the City of Chicago Council voted to change Northerly Island zoning to permit the construction of a park. This was 19 days prior to the expiration of the lease from the Park District to the City. On September 12, the State of Illinois was granted leave to intervene in order to compel the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") to prepare an Environmental Assessment ("EA") or Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") as to the closure of Meigs Field pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. sec. 4321 et seq. In the past, the FAA opposed the closing of Meigs Field. However, beginning in 1996 it withdrew its opposition and, as the district court stated, took "the position that it has no power to force the city to continue to operate because the [owner] Park District will not renew the lease." Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association v. Hinson, Order of the District Court at 15 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 1, 1996) [hereinafter District Court Opinion]. The district court concluded that the FAA's decision not to compel the City to operate the airport for the useful life of the improvements was not a "major Federal action" within the meaning of NEPA that would require an EIS pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 4332(2)(C). The court reasoned that the FAA had no discretion to exercise in connection with the closing of Meigs Field under the grant agreements it and the City had entered into in connection with certain capital improvements made to Meigs Field, which totaled just over $1 million. Even if the FAA had such discretion, the court concluded that the propriety of the FAA's decision to rely on a contractual remedy set forth in the grant agreements, rather than resorting to sanctions or threat of sanctions or a suit for specific performance or otherwise, was unreviewable under Heckler v. Chaney, 470 U.S. 821. The district court also held that there is no private right of action under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 to enforce alleged violations of the Airport and Airways Improvement Act (49 U.S.C. sec. 47101 et seq.) and that the Public Trust Doctrine was not violated.

In its denial of the preliminary injunction requested by plaintiffs, the district court therefore concluded that the plaintiffs' chances of prevailing on the merits of their claims were "remote at best." The court found that the plaintiffs had shown irreparable injury if preliminary relief were denied because it was probable that the airport would be destroyed before any trial on the merits could be had, and the airport could not realistically be rebuilt once demolished. However, in balancing the harms, the district court determined that irreparable harm to the Park District would also result if the preliminary injunction were granted. The court noted the Park District's extensive and temporally and financially integrated series of improvements to the lakefront, which in turn depended upon its plans for Northerly Island, as well as a bond issue for harbor improvements that would likely need to be halted in the event of a preliminary injunction. The court believed it should proceed cautiously in a case such as this where it would be interfering with the governance decisions of the people's elected representatives, and believed that such meddling would always cause irreparable injury.

On appeal, the plaintiffs' principal substantive argument is that the Public Trust Doctrine precludes the destruction of Meigs Field. The intervenor State of Illinois argues that (i) the AAIA and other FAA regulations require that the grant agreements between the FAA and the City be construed to require the City to acquire Meigs Field from the Park District, and accordingly, (ii) the FAA's failure to enforce such agreements against the City was "major Federal action" under NEPA requiring that an EIS be prepared. The State asserts that Heckler v. Chaney does not apply to the FAA's decision because the FAA in effect granted a release permitting the City to close Meigs Field, an affirmative act rather than an enforcement decision, and even if Heckler v. Chaney applied, there is an abundance of "law to apply" in reviewing the FAA's decision. Amici curiae Friends of the Parks, Lake Michigan Federation, and Openlands Project argue before this Court that the mandatory injunction that plaintiffs seek would irreparably injure the people of Chicago by depriving them of the use of Northerly Island as a public park and therefore they advocate the denial of a preliminary injunction.

When considering whether a preliminary injunction should be granted, a district court must first consider "whether the moving party has demonstrated: 1) a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, and 2) no adequate remedy at law and irreparable harm if preliminary relief is denied." Mil-Mar Shoe Co. v. Shonac Corp., 75 F.3d 1153, 1156 (7th Cir. 1996). If the moving party has demonstrated those items to the satisfaction of the court, then it must look at: "3) the irreparable harm the non-moving party will suffer if the injunction is granted balanced against the irreparable harm the moving party will suffer if the injunction is denied, and 4) the public interest, i.e., the effect that granting or denying the injunction will have on non-parties." Id. This Court will review the district court's conclusions of law de novo, its findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard, and its decision to deny an injunction for abuse of discretion. See Roth v. Lutheran General Hospital, 57 F.3d 1446, 1453 (7th Cir. 1995); Duct-O-Wire Co. v. U.S. Crane, Inc., 31 F.3d 506, 508-509 (7th Cir. 1994); Abbott Laboratories v. Mead Johnson & Co., 971 F.2d 6, 12-13 (7th Cir. 1992).

We will first turn our attention to the plaintiffs' and intervenor's likelihood of success on ...

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