Opponents of Stepped-Up Washington Airport Use See Cause for Worry

March 10, 2006
When Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon convened a panel last year to review potential uses at Paine Field, opponents cried foul.

As part of a larger study, a consultant hired by a special Snohomish County committee will review the economic potential and other impacts of commercial flights at the county-owned airport.

When Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon convened a panel last year to review potential uses at Paine Field, opponents cried foul.

They viewed the move as a subtle way of bringing commercial flights to the county's airport, something nearby residents say would threaten their quality of life.

Those opponents now see more reason for their initial fears.

Reardon's appointed committee, composed of elected officials and business leaders, decided last week to hire a consultant to determine benefits and other impacts of increased airport use. Among the factors to be studied are the potential economic benefits and property-value changes resulting from commercial flights at Paine Field.

"Hiring consultants to do these studies seems to have nothing to do with the original purpose of the panel," said Barbara Ward, a spokeswoman for Save Our Communities, which opposes commercial use of the airport. "We're concerned about the direction the panel is taking."

Under initial guidelines, the panel is to re-examine and update the Mediated Role Determination, a document that controls how the airstrip is used. Created in the 1970s and renewed in 2002, the document calls for light aircraft to be Paine Field's primary users and discourages cargo aviation, charter passenger service, large crew-training operations and military aviation from growing beyond 1978 levels.

Committee members say the hiring of a consultant is nothing more than an attempt to grasp the beast that Paine Field has become. Unless impacts are considered, there's no way to review the Mediated Role Determination, said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, a co-chairman of the committee.

"To accomplish that task, we have to assemble information and make recommendations," he said.

Constructed in 1936, Paine Field was used as an Army air base during World War II and as an Air Force fighter base during the early years of the Cold War. By 1966, Boeing began using the field to assemble and test its 747 jetliner and still has a large plant there.

Commercial use of Paine Field has been limited and mostly unsuccessful. Alaska Airlines tried it during the 1940s. Forty years later, San Juan Airlines flew small commercial planes there for two years.

Since then, other panels, including the Puget Sound Regional Council, have mostly recommended against commercial airliners at Paine Field.

But a number of factors could make this review different, which worries opponents:

? Snohomish County is growing fast. By 2025, the county is expected to increase its population by one-third and have more than 900,000 residents.

? Road traffic continues to thicken. It takes longer now to reach Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the only major commercial option in the area, than it did 10 years ago.

? Even with an eventual third runway, Sea-Tac is expected to be at capacity again by 2021, prompting state and federal agencies to reconsider regional options for commercial flights.

? The Puget Sound Regional Council, once charged with locating a regional airfield for commercial use, still hasn't found a viable option.

Reardon's Paine Field committee, which will meet every other Thursday, hopes to complete its review of the Mediated Role Determination by fall.

The direction it takes should be tempered by former Mukilteo Mayor Don Doran, the panel's other co-chairman. An opponent of commercial flights at the airport, Doran expressed his discomfort at last week's proceedings.

"How impacts should be mitigated wasn't our original role," he said during the meeting.

Afterward, he toned down his comments, saying, "I want to believe the panel is well-balanced" in its views toward Paine Field.

Doran said he doesn't think there is a conspiracy, just an interest in learning as much about the airport as possible.

But opponents of commercial flights say they won't wait until the panel finishes its business. They already are meeting with County Council members who are considering an agreement between the county and Mukilteo that would all but prohibit commercial flights at Paine Field.

"We don't feel this [review-panel process] is going to benefit our community or quality of life in any way," said Ward, of Save Our Communities. "We're not very optimistic."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or [email protected]

Meeting next week

Meetings of the Paine Field review panel are open to the public. The next session is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. March 16 at the county administration building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.

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