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Airport Bill Goes to the State Senate

by Kirk Kirkland

On February 23 the Washington House Transportation Committee approved a better method to select the location of a new airport the size of SEATAC. The Committee made several amendments to previous Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) legislation, which gave the commission the authority to select a new airport site, called a Greenfield.

Amended legislation HB1791 replaces the previous Commission with an Airport Workgroup and asks that the next "recommendation" meet a higher standard for selection.

The workgroup is now required to consult with military authorities, environmental groups, and others about the loss of species and compliance with Growth Management Plans. At previous meetings, the Aviation Commission used inadequately detailed maps of Fort Lewis’ surroundings and wasn't required to consult with military authorities. The new legislation corrects this oversight.

Committee chair Jake Fey said that the consultation with military installations "will effectively eliminate the three greenfield sites recommended by the CACC," which were the sites that alarmed local residents and environmentalists when proposed.

Unfortunately these changes are inadequate for neighborhood groups in Thurston and Pierce counties. They want assurance that this newly constituted Airport Workgroup will never again select Thurston and Pierce County as possible sites. This is understandable, because the Aviation Commission threatened these people with the loss of their land and businesses. This threat goes deep to their mistrust with the government process that could potentially take their land away.

The co-sponsor of the amended bill, Representative Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake said, “I recognize their concerns, with so many of our citizens, whether they felt like they may be losing where they live, they’re losing their houses, their homes and having to relocate,” said Dent on February 23. “I can understand that.”

Concerned neighborhood groups want explicit immunity from being chosen again. They wanted the three county Greenfields named in explicit detail, and removed -- as clearly as the King County Airport near downtown Seattle was removed from consideration. Unfortunately, state legislation written to recommend an airport with guidelines for all counties cannot be that specific.

To compensate, the bill's sponsors raised the standards for recommending an airport to include impacts on greenhouse gas emissions goals, Growth Management Act compliance, and water quality. Then they gave voting rights to the local community advocates to be part of the airport workgroup. Then the amendment increased the voting right to include two environmental groups.

This will provide a significant minority voice that has to be included in the final recommendation to the Legislators. Going even further to give all stakeholders a voice, the amended legislation also includes a required consultation with the state Indian Tribes of any county that is selected.

The required consultations are considerable obstacles for the 17 people on the new Airport Work Group to navigate around before making a recommendation. If these are still not enough for community advocates, it shows how deeply the people who live near the already proposed greenfields lack trust in government processes that may impact their lives.

These people worry about the price of land changing or that they'll be unable to afford relocation when bought out. In a word, these people have been traumatized previously and fear being forced out of their homes.

Sometime in March, HB 1791 will visit the Senate Transportation Committee. That will be the final place for these groups to share their concerns. This is a long way from the end of January when they protested on the steps of the State Capitol. Fortunately this issue has attracted a lot of newspaper coverage, which has helped explain the complexities of the legislation.

In the end it is important for these neighborhood groups to know that they have been heard. Most important is to stay involved and watch the airport group in action, to make sure they don't miss any required steps before making their next recommendation.

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