Bellingham airport committee faces criticism, offers suggestions on noise, trails

An Allegiant Air plane waits for passengers to board, April 2, 2014 at Bellingham International Airport.
An Allegiant Air plane waits for passengers to board, April 2, 2014 at Bellingham International Airport. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

A group formed to make recommendations for Bellingham’s airport has suggested the Port of Bellingham increase its study of noise impacts and work with the city and county to ensure the airport grows with the community.

At the Port Commission meeting Tuesday, Jan. 20, the chairwoman of the Bellingham International Airport Advisory Committee presented a lengthy list of ideas the group has come up with to improve the airport and mitigate impacts on surrounding neighbors.

Some of those ideas included working to improve parks and trails near the airport, improve bicycle routes so riders could commute straight to the terminal, and make sure the airport is included in the upcoming comprehensive plans that the city and county need to update by 2016.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the information our elected officials have about the airport and what really has grown,” committee chairwoman April Barker said. “We would encourage you to work with the county and city so the airport is included in the comprehensive plan so we are growing together, with an end goal.”

The ideas, many of which port staff members said they already are working on, were the first concrete suggestions made to the port commission since the committee was formed.

The BIAAC received an overhaul in March 2014, when the port commission split the old committee into technical and non-technical groups, stating the change was needed in part due to the growth of the airport and subsequent growth of community interest in airport operations.

With the split, aviation professionals were asked to meet in the Technical Airport Advisory Committee, and all citizen, neighborhood and local government representatives were asked to meet in the BIAAC.

Since regrouping, the non-technical committee’s meetings have been dominated by discussions on noise, which caused port commissioners Mike McAuley and Dan Robbins concern late last year.

Early in its new form, the BIAAC created its own subcommittee on noise to try to make sure the subject wouldn’t take up so much of the full group’s time, but meeting minutes show that the group continues to focus on that single topic, most recently dialing in on a study of sound levels around the airport that some members said is necessary to help the commission decide how to address noise issues.

At the Nov. 18 commission meeting, McAuley said he thought the committee had an identity crisis, and he didn’t think port commissioners or port staff who attend the meetings should give their opinions until the group had better figured out what the commission wanted it to accomplish.

“I can only say one thing: The BIAAC is dysfunctional, it will continue to be dysfunctional, and I have no idea what they’re doing,” McAuley said.

When formed last year, the committee was given a list to work on, including issues like airport ground transportation, planning and development, traffic, operations, parking, and community outreach, as well as noise.

“I agree the BIAAC is very dysfunctional. It’s probably one of the most frustrating meetings I went to,” Robbins said at the Nov. 18 meeting.

McAuley said he didn’t think the group would survive the year without rapid action from the port commission.

Recently, the committee has proved unattractive to local government agencies: A spot reserved for a representative from Lummi Nation remains unfilled, no one from Bellingham City Council opted to fill the city’s spot this year, and the County Council only appointed someone to its position because it fit into member Sam Crawford’s schedule.

When County Council was figuring out committee assignments last week, member Rud Browne, who served on the BIAAC in its old form, said the committee had become “100 percent noise complaints.”

“It’s not that I don’t think the noise issue isn’t important,” Browne said. “It’s just that we have no influence” on how the airport is run.

Barker said no county representative has been to a committee meeting since the reorganization, and that the committee had explicitly been told to focus on noise as one of its first issues.

“So they don’t know how we’re functioning,” Barker said. “It would be great for them to engage with us, and it’s a good opportunity for them to hear from their constituents.”

After Barker’s presentation Tuesday, McAuley said he appreciated that the committee was starting to build past the focus on noise.

“I think the county is missing the boat a bit in saying they don’t want to be involved in this because the airport is managed by the port,” McAuley said. “That property doesn’t have to stand alone. ... I appreciate you saying let’s look outside the airport.”

Barker said the committee could use the port commission’s help in getting the city and county engaged again.

In December, port staff members said they would run the numbers to see how expensive an expanded noise study or survey might be, and present the commission with those options in January. No numbers were presented Tuesday, and Barker said she would be interested to see what the port comes up with, as the committee’s framing of further work would likely depend on that data.