In the flight path? Opponents still hope to halt Paine Field passenger flights

Artists renderings of the new Paine Field passenger terminal, due to begin serving customers in fall 2018. (Courtesy Propeller Aviation)

It’s been a long time in the works, but with ground now broken for the new Alaska Airlines terminal at Paine Field, project supporters are confident that as many as two dozen daily commercial flights from this new facility will begin in fall 2018. But those who oppose the project are continuing their efforts, and are hopeful that a challenge pending before the Washington State Supreme Court could scuttle the project.

The terminal is being developed by New York-based Propeller Airports, who according to the company website “partners with airport authorities and local communities to privately develop and operate passenger terminals and support facilities.” Propeller negotiated a lease agreement with Snohomish County to allow construction of a 29,000-square-foot passenger terminal at Paine Field, for which it will pay the county $429,000 per year plus a percentage of the gross revenue. The agreement was approved 3-2 by the County Council in 2015.

Alaska Airlines plans to begin operations from the new terminal next fall. Destinations have yet to be announced, but early indications include regular service to the Bay Area and Northwest cities, and some select vacation areas (think Hawaii).

From the outset, this has been one of those projects you either love or hate.

Local supporters include Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Everett Mayor Ray Stephenson. At the June 5 groundbreaking, Somers was joined by Stepehson, Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib, and Alaska CEO Brad Tilden. All expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of commercial flights at Paine Field, citing the economic boost to Snohomish County and the added convenience for passengers. “I love Sea Tac and I love Seattle,” said Somers. “But I hate driving through it.”

Artists renderings of the new Paine Field passenger terminal, due to begin serving customers in fall 2018. (Courtesy Propeller Aviation)

Citing the economic advantages of the project, Propeller CEO Brett Smith said in a written statement that “limited commercial air service will bring more jobs and economic activity to Snohomish County, including residents of Mukilteo – not to mention better travel options and competitive fares.”

Alaska Airlines is also predictably bullish on the project. “As our region continues to grow at a record pace and Sea-Tac Airport nears capacity, the time is right to bring air service to our valued guests living in the North Sound,” said Alaska CEO Brad Tilden. “This will mean less time stuck in traffic on Interstate 5 and more time enjoying your vacation or making the most of your business trip.”

According to Everett Mayor Ray Stephenson, “Alaska understands the local market, so having our Seattle-based airline be the first to provide scheduled passenger service from Everett just confirms the value commercial flights will bring to the local economy. Alaska is an industry leader in service and reliability, and our citizens and businesses will benefit from having such a convenient travel option right here in Everett.”

And a 2012 environmental assessment by the FAA concluded that with Paine Field already handling about 300 general aviation takeoffs and landings each day, adding two dozen additional commercial passenger jet flights would have “no significant impacts” on the surrounding community.

But despite these rosy statements, jurisdictions and groups opposed to the project continue in their efforts to halt it, citing noise, increased traffic and other potential negative impacts to the community.

The City of Mukilteo is in the forefront of the opposition, and has been joined by community groups and other jurisdictions including Edmonds, Woodway and Lynnwood. Mukilteo has made several legal attempts in federal and state court to stop the project, and has challenged the FAA’s findings of “no significant impacts” in its environmental assessment. To date, none of those challenges has been successful. The most recent legal action — to which Edmonds is not a party — is a petition to the state Supreme Court questioning the legality of the county’s lease agreement with Propeller. That challenge is still pending.

Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling is also concerned about the potential impacts of commercial passenger flights at Paine Field.

“I’m very concerned about flight patterns and the potential for increased ambient noise in our community from passenger jets flying overhead,” he said. “While Mukilteo’s current suit could make this moot, my sense is that the project is moving ahead and we need to be prepared to work with the airport and flight operators on mitigating the negative impacts on our quality of life here in Edmonds.”

In response to these concerns, Propeller has agreed to avoid late-night operations and limit flights to between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. But opponents see this as a Band-Aid measure at best.

Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas

Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas is outspokenly opposed to the project.

“Edmonds has been in the forefront of opposing commercial passenger flights from Paine Field for decades,” she said. “Beginning in 1992 we passed seven resolutions under three different mayors opposing these projects. More recently we’ve joined with Mukilteo in their various legal petitions to stop the project. So this is nothing new for us.

“Many of our citizens are very concerned about being right in the flight path,” Fraley-Monillas continued. “This would be very detrimental to our community and our way of life. Those planes will fly so low over Edmonds that we’d almost be able to reach up and touch them. And think about real estate values — who’d want to buy a home under a flight path?”

(Read the most recent City of Edmonds resolution from 2012 opposing Paine Field commercial operations here.

Jerry Capretta, a real estate professional and past member of the Puget Sound Regional Council, has lived in Everett and Edmonds for the past 58 years, and has testified against the project in front of the Edmonds City Council. He is concerned that it will depress local real estate values and cause quality-of-life deterioration in this section of Snohomish County. He feels strongly that it is a “bad idea that our decision-makers will live to regret.”

Love it or hate it, all signs point to the project moving ahead despite the current challenge before the State Supreme Court. But this does not deter those who would stop it before it gets off the ground.

“This month’s groundbreaking just means some dirt was turned over with golden shovels,” said Fraley-Monillas. “Lots can happen between that and the bulldozers moving in.”

A comprehensive list of project documents is available online from Snohomish County here.

— By Larry Vogel

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