A $1.5 billion redevelopment plan at National and Dulles International airports may be delayed by a federal appeals court ruling yesterday that took away much of the power of the authority that runs Washington's airports.
In a split ruling, the three-judge panel declared that part of the 1986 law that transferred the airports from federal to local control is unconstitutional. The decision ordered the authority not to approve another budget, change its redevelopment plan or authorize the sale of more construction bonds until the case is resolved.
The court ruled that a nine-member congressional review board that has veto power over decisions by the authority's board of directors is unconstitutional because it allows Congress to go beyond its legislative boundaries.
The ruling was the latest twist in a two-year-old lawsuit pitting the airports authority against a group of airport neighbors upset by the noise of takeoffs and landings. The group is trying to block National's $735 million renovation plan, which it says would pave the way for larger aircraft and more flights at the 50-year-old airport.
Patti Goldman, a lawyer representing Citizens for the Abatement of Airport Noise, said yesterday's ruling means that "at some point, the airports authority will not be able to function . . . and Congress will have to decide whether to bring the airports back under federal control or cut them loose completely."
Airport officials predicted yesterday that daily operations at National and Dulles will not be affected by the ruling.
They said they are unsure how many construction projects could be delayed, but acknowledged that proposals to build a new control tower at National and to allocate right-of-way for a toll road to Dulles could be held up because they have not been approved by the authority.
"The development of our expansion plan is bound to run into some obstacles because of this," said Linwood Holton Jr., chairman of the authority's board of directors. The tower and the toll road plans "are examples of how we can be handicapped," he said.
The authority already has authorized more than $1.5 billion in bonds to finance construction at the airports, but only about $500 million of those bonds have been sold.
Although the ruling does not prevent the authority from issuing more construction bonds, financial analysts said yesterday that the authority could have a difficult time selling more bonds until its future is more settled. David Hess, a spokesman for the authority, said yesterday it has no plans to sell any more bonds in the next several months.
Airport officials said yesterday they have not decided how to respond to the ruling, but indicated that the authority could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask Congress to change the legislation.
"We may have to ask Congress for corrective action at some point," Holton said.
Constitutionality questions have dogged the congressional review board since it was created four years ago as part of the law that allowed the local authority to operate the federally owned airports under a 50-year lease.
The legislation creating the board was designed to satisfy members of Congress who worried that a local authority might take away their parking privileges at the airports or stop air service to their districts.
The appeals court ruled yesterday that in establishing the board, Congress granted itself an executive function, a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
The congressional review board has used its veto power only once, when it overturned the authority's decision to allow car pools on the eastbound Dulles Access Road during the morning rush hour.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Abner J. Mikva said that the appeals court ruling "thwarts local control over and planning for the airports. I see no reason for this court to reach the drastic result of invalidating a delicately-balanced and innovative institution of federalism."
Goldman, the lawyer for the anti-noise group, said the group hopes the ruling will lead to a rethinking of expansion plans at National, which she said would create more aircraft noise along the Potomac River.
Airport officials have said their goal in renovating National is to improve the airport's efficiency while not significantly adding to its traffic.