Compensation for airport neighbors on noise? Port candidates say yes

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 29, 2013 

Allegiant Air flight

An Allegiant Air flight flies into the Bellingham International Airport, March 30, 2013.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - All four Port of Bellingham commissioner candidates have told airport neighbors they are willing to consider cash compensation for noise impacts on their property values.

At a Tuesday, Aug. 27, forum at Shuksan Middle School, attended by about 100 people, several of those present complained that jet noise from an increasingly busy Bellingham International Airport was reducing the value of their homes.

The forum was sponsored by Birchwood and Columbia neighborhood associations, and by the Reduce Jet Noise group.

Incumbent District 2 port commissioner Mike McAuley said the impact on property values needs to be measured to determine what kind of compensation might be appropriate.

Ken Bell, challenging McAuley's re-election bid, noted that the port bought out several homes south of the airport after the runway was extended to the south more than 20 years ago. He also noted that in other cities, airport neighbors' homes have been equipped with sound-proofing. Bell said the federal government sets guidelines that determine whether a homeowner is eligible for those kinds of compensation.

Dan Robbins and Renata Kowalczyk, seeking the District 2 seat being vacated by Scott Walker, also were receptive.

Robbins agreed that compensation for those whose homes have been devalued would be fair, but, like Bell, he noted that eligibility for noise compensation may depend on federal guidelines, because federal funds would be involved.

Kowalczyk noted that Sea-Tac Airport has bought out some homes, in accordance with federal rules.

Later in the meeting, incumbent McAuley expanded on the issue, saying the Federal Aviation Administration's involvement need not prevent the port from doing its own analysis of noise impacts that could go beyond what federal standards require.

"This port has been hiding behind the FAA for years," he said. "The FAA doesn't live here. We all live here. It's my job to care about what you perceive as a problem in your neighborhood."

McAuley seemed the most skeptical about future airport growth. He pledged he would never support any move to extend the existing runway or add a new runway to accommodate more flights that are heavily used by Canadians rather than local residents.

In a later email message, Port Aviation Director Dan Zenk said lengthening or adding runways is a distant prospect at best - something that would be considered when annual takeoffs and landings by all planes hit 200,000. Zenk said that is not likely to happen in the next 20 years. Takeoffs and landings are now at about 70,000 per year.

McAuley's opponent, Bell, was the most enthusiastic about airport growth and its broader benefits. Bell argued that the added commercial flights out of Bellingham were already triggering indirect high-income job creation, thanks to the improved transportation links, and he wants more.

"We really do need more access to more places," he said, adding that direct flights to Chicago would be "a dream."

Robbins agreed that the airport provides a major economic boost.

"I'm all about jobs, and it takes airports to attract good businesses with good jobs," Robbins said.

Kowalczyk said the port should work to minimize the conflicts caused by airport growth.

"We could have a vibrant airport and we could have the quality of life," Kowalczyk said. "The bottom line is, you are part of the community that is impacted by the airport we have."

Kowalczyk expressed repeated concern about the use of growth forecasts to make major decisions about public investment in the airport. She noted that the port has issued millions of dollars in bonds to pay for current improvements, to be paid off with future passenger revenues generated at the airport. She questioned the wisdom of making still more investments based on growth predictions that could be wrong - especially if conditions change and Bellingham becomes less attractive to Canadian travelers.

McAuley acknowledged the airport's economic benefits for Whatcom County, but also said he wants the port to work harder to convince Allegiant Air - the most active airline locally - to address noise problems. Among other things, he wants to persuade Allegiant to move faster to phase out older, noisier MD-80 class aircraft.

Robbins and Bell were skeptical about the advisability of trying to talk tough with Allegiant.

Robbins said airlines decide what planes to fly, and comments from port commissioners probably won't have much impact on those decisions.

"It would be nice if we had the power to tell airlines they need to get new aircraft, but we don't," Robbins said.

He asked for a show of hands of people who thought the complete phaseout of MD-80s would solve noise problems. Few, if any, hands were raised.

Bell said he wanted cordial relations with Allegiant.

"They (Allegiant) bring a lot of business into this community," he said. "If we let them know we want them here, we'll get more than if we go in with an adversarial attitude."

All of the candidates said they hoped Allegiant would be phasing out the noisier jets in a year or two, and said they believed that was likely.

Not so, said Allegiant spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler in a later phone interview. Wheeler said Allegiant now has 55 MD-80s in its fleet. The airline is in the process of adding as many as 11 newer Airbus planes between now and the end of 2014, but many MD-80s will remain in service over the next few years.

"The workhorse of our fleet is the MD-80," Wheeler said.

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Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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