Renton Seeks Less Turbulence over Plan for Airport's Future

To get critics to cool their jets, a chastened Renton is easing up on the airport-planning process, revisiting policy decisions that gave rise to the jet-center concept and pledging to conduct a noise study, sharing the cost with Mercer Island.


Executive-jet terminal | The city plans a noise study and makes other conciliatory moves toward Mercer Island residents who oppose a new facility.

When Mercer Islanders learned of a proposal to build an executive-jet terminal at Renton Municipal Airport, many feared it would bring more jet noise to their community.

So they brought their own "noise" launching a Web site opposing the center, posting fliers at grocery stores and coffee shops, circulating a petition, canvassing neighborhoods and speaking out at a community meeting in January that lasted more than three hours and drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 people.

"This is not a group of activists that will come and go," Mercer Island City Council member Mike Grady warned representatives from Renton.

Point taken.

To get critics to cool their jets, a chastened Renton is easing up on the airport-planning process, revisiting policy decisions that gave rise to the jet-center concept and pledging to conduct a noise study, sharing the cost with Mercer Island.

"I think we are going to double-check ourselves because it's been two-plus years since we've put this together," said Renton City Council member Marcie Palmer, adding that plans were conceived at a time when The Landing, a mixed-use development slated for the south end of Lake Washington, was still nascent.

Renton civic leaders homed in on a jet center a few years ago, when an impending turnover among airport tenants, including the largest lessee, Boeing, called for a new course.

The noise study is not required by law; it's a gesture to soothe angry residents. Many are still smarting over a runway closure and maintenance at Boeing Field last year, which sent more flights to Renton Municipal Airport, and thus over Mercer Island, from August until November.

All flights using only instruments to land at the Renton airport come straight down the center of Mercer Island, but most aircraft are flown visually. In those cases, air-traffic controllers sometimes can direct planes through the east channel to minimize noise over the island, airport manager Ryan Zulauf said.

Turbulence created by the airport plans has been exacerbated, city officials admit, by poor communication on their part. City staff members sent a preferred alternative out for bid, leading the public to believe a decision had been made.

That was a mistake, Palmer said, and now Renton is trying to make up for it. She invited Mercer Island to send a resident to join the airport advisory committee, and said she intends to solicit opinions from residents of both cities before the issue goes to the council. The city also needs a financial model to see if an executive flight center would work.

But city leaders say the question is not whether to change the airport's niche, but how. In 1947, the federal government signed surplus land along the shores of Lake Washington over to the city for $1, with the stipulation that Renton would operate an airport in perpetuity. If it fails to do so, the FAA can reclaim the airport and hand it over to another jurisdiction to operate.

In recent years the airport has been operating below capacity, with about 85,000 takeoffs and landings per year, mostly recreational flights. In the 1970s, the airport had more than 200,000 takeoffs and landings per year.

The airport acts as a "reliever" for Sea-Tac and Boeing Field. Brand-new Boeing 737s built at the company's adjacent plant use the runway to take off for test flights and to move the planes to Boeing Field, although Renton's short runway makes it impractical for cargo planes and fully loaded commercial airliners.

Boeing factors greatly into the airport plans. Having improved airplane-manufacturing efficiency, the company began to return much of the land and some of the buildings it had leased at the airport in 2003. At the same time, other longtime leases there began to expire.

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