Olympia Area Officials, Residents Organize Against Thurston Airport Proposal

Oct. 25, 2022

Oct. 24—News of a proposed two-runway airport southeast of Olympia has alarmed local officials and residents alike, prompting them to organize stronger opposition.

Thurston County reaffirmed its opposition to the proposal in an Oct. 17 letter to local state legislators. In addition to the Board of County Commissioners, the letter included signatures from the mayors of Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Bucoda, Yelm, Rainer and Tenino.

"The prospects of an airport expansion will exponentially increase the loss of agricultural lands and put at risk the balance our residents have worked hard to maintain with our natural environment," the letter reads.

"Thurston County Central," as the site is called, would be located within a circular area that spans six-miles in diameter northeast of Tenino. The area includes a significant portion of Pattison Lake to the north and Rainer Road Southeast cuts through it diagonally.

The Commercial Aviation Coordination Commission included the Thurston County site in a list of recommendations that it submitted to the state legislature on Oct. 15. The commission has been tasked by the legislature with identifying one location for expanding aviation capacity by a June 15, 2023, deadline.

In addition to the Thurston County site, the commission is also considering two "greenfield" sites in Pierce County for a new airport. As an alternative to developing a new airport, the commission may recommend growing Paine Field in Snohomish County.

The legislature must approve whatever the commission ultimately recommends, and it will take many years for the project to start. Still, that hasn't stopped locals from sounding the alarm in their communities and on social media.

change.org petition organized by Sue Cummings, a local farm owner, had received almost 7,000 signatures in opposition to the proposed airport as of Friday afternoon.

"Stop the Thurston Airport," a citizen advocacy group, announced their official launch on Oct. 17. Dawn Sonntag, chief organizer of the group, described the airport as an existential and immediate threat to local property owners.

"This mega-airport will be devastating to this area, to any area actually," Sonntag said. "From this moment forward, we cannot sell... We are trapped in an extremely stressful situation."

In the short term, the mere prospect of the airport has already halted some owners' improvement projects and hindered their ability to sell their property, Sonntag said.

Sonntag, who lives in the Sunwood Lakes community, said she started organizing her advocacy group after first learning about the proposed airport in late September.

Since then, she said she has called community gatherings that have drawn large crowds and gathered volunteers to study the proposal and spread the word. She added she and her neighbors have felt blindsided by the state commission's selection process.

"None of my neighbors could believe it," Sonntag said. "This was not just like we ran around, had some conversations and we started a little group. This is a strong, fast, very determined group."

If the state decides to pursue a Thurston County airport, Sonntag said she fears many property owners may be forced to sell their property through eminent domain at unfair values. Even if they moved, she said many people may not be able to afford rents in the area.

"You're going to be having families with children experiencing this kind of trauma," Sonntag said. "And these families will never get out of that financial stress."

Sonntag pushed back against the notion the airport will simply inconvenience locals, a claim she said she has seen on social media. Instead, she predicted terrible consequences for neighborhoods, businesses, farms and long-time property owners.

"You have tight knit communities being ripped apart," Sonntag said. "You've got people who have been living here since the 80s. You've got people who are near retirement who (their property) was their security for the future."

She said consequences could also extend to the environment, affecting endangered species, forests, wetlands, air quality and more. She added she felt doubtful of any claims the state might be able to mitigate these effects with emerging technologies.

An Oct. 15 report indicates the Commercial Aviation Coordination Commission envisions an "Airport of the Future" that addresses harmful emissions and noises.

In a Thursday news release, David Fleckenstein, the Washington state Department of Transportation Aviation Director and chairman of the CACC, elaborated on what that future could be like.

"Increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuels could significantly reduce harmful emissions," Fleckenstein said. "Emerging aeronautics technology could also reduce noise from airplanes while also providing additional commercial air service options to more airports around the state."

The CACC plans to study technical data about the greenfield sites in Pierce and Thurston counties in the months ahead. They have also promised "additional opportunities" for public input, according to the release.

For now, the CACC has only been accepting comments and questions via email at CACC@wsdot.wa.gov. An Oct. 19 update indicates the CACC has recently been receiving a "high volume of emails" that prevent it from responding immediately to each one.


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