Commercial flights out of Everett hit hurdle

By Noah Haglund
(Everett) Herald Writer 

MUKILTEO — The city of Mukilteo and a community group have asked state courts to void Snohomish County’s agreement with a New York company seeking to build a terminal for regular passenger flights at Paine Field.

The city and Save Our Communities want the county to perform a full review under the State Environmental Policy Act before any deal with Propeller Airports moves ahead. They filed a petition for judicial review in King County Superior Court in Seattle on March 23.

“We’re just saying they should go ahead and do that analysis before they commit exactly to what the lease looks like and any of the potential costs,” Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said.

The environmental review could include categories such as air quality, stormwater, noise and traffic.

The county, which operates Paine Field, is reviewing the petition and preparing a defense, said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.

“We’ve been served with the complaint,” Cummings said. “We feel confident in the process that’s been followed and we’ll defend against the lawsuit accordingly.”

The suit takes aim at an option-to-lease agreement that the County Council approved March 2 by a 3-2 vote.

The agreement grants Propeller Airports the option to sign a 30-year lease for 10.7 acres of airport land for the purpose of building a passenger terminal and parking facilities.

The company would pay the county about $429,000 per year in rent. The county also would receive a cut of operating revenue from air service and parking.

Before executing a lease, the company has up to three years to design an acceptable facility and perform environmental studies.

Those are the studies that Mukilteo and Save Our Communities argue, in their lawsuit, should be done before committing to a long-term lease.

For Save Our Communities president Mike Moore, it’s a question of sequence. He wonders how the county determined the lease rate and impact fees, if it lacks a thorough understanding of the impacts that a future terminal would have.

“Why wouldn’t you do your own analysis before making a commitment for up to 50 years?” he asked.

On Tuesday, Propeller CEO Brett Smith said he was unable to comment on pending litigation or provide further details about the project.

After the County Council voted in favor of his company’s proposal a month ago, Smith sought out Moore and other opponents in the audience, offering to talk through their concerns.

An envisioned two-gate terminal could handle an average of more than a dozen takeoffs every day. That would add about 8,340 takeoffs and landings per year, according to previous studies.

Paine Field has handled 107,000 to 113,000 flights annually in recent years, airport director Arif Ghouse said.

The Federal Aviation Administration determined in December 2012 that the proposed level of commercial passenger flights would not harm Paine Field neighbors. The FAA decision was based on a federal environmental review that cost taxpayers $654,000 and took three years. It only looked at potential impacts through 2018.

The study was based on earlier proposals to operate regularly scheduled passenger flights by Allegiant Air of Las Vegas and Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air of Portland. It’s unclear now which airlines Propeller hopes to attract.

Mukilteo, Save Our Communities and the city of Edmonds sued the FAA in federal court to challenge the findings. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the case last year. The court would lift the stay and weigh a decision once there’s “conclusive evidence of a viable funding arrangement for the construction of the terminal,” the judges said in their order.

Mukilteo, which adjoins Paine Field, has spent $200,000 on the federal lawsuit since it was filed in early 2013, Gregerson said. The city has up to $110,000 on hand in a reserve fund for Paine Field legal issues.

That doesn’t include Save Our Communities’ contribution.

FAA rules. meanwhile, obligate the county to negotiate in good faith with parties that want to lease vacant airport property for aviation.

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