Jets bring woes for neighbors of Bellingham's airport

Some of the residents north of the Bellingham International Airport feel they are living on an “invisible” runway.

Jets on landing approaches roar overhead daily, close enough for one to make out small details such as landing gear and fuselage windows from the ground. Some residents in the area worry that a quiet, rural existence they’ve sought is slipping away.

“Had we known this was coming at the extent it has come,” said Mary Jane Anderson, who every day sees a handful of jets descend directly over her house off Sunset Drive, “we probably would’ve sold [our home years ago].”

Port of Bellingham officials are about to enter the latter stages of an airport master plan update, expected to be complete by the middle of next year. It’s the first such update in nearly a decade.

Business at Bellingham’s airport has exploded. Last year, it served more than 500,000 travelers—more than six times the number from 2004. Port officials cite the arrival of low-cost Allegiant Air and heavy traffic from Canadian passengers as growth factors. The rising passenger levels should continue.

Daniel Zenk, the port’s aviation director, has forecast a continued passenger increase of 12-15 percent annually for the next 5-10 years. The airport is in the middle of a multi-million dollar expansion that would boost the size of its terminal, ticketing and baggage claim facilities.

A larger airport would mean more local jobs and support more opportunities for aviation-related businesses, port officials have said. But residents and business owners opposed to the expansion believe noise and air pollution from an increase in flights could lower property values and disrupt the character of neighborhoods north of Bellingham.

Lisa Neulicht is a lead organizer for Reduce Jet Noise, a citizens group opposed to the port’s expansion plans. Neulicht operates a small berry farm with her husband north of the airport.

Neulicht said the constant landings are ruining her neighborhood, which is home to a number of small farms, corner stores and garden nurseries. The engine noise is at times loud enough that people are forced to stop conversations and wait for jets to pass by, she said.

“Those planes are like total urban encroachment,” Neulicht said. “They turn it into an urban-feeling area.”

Negative impacts

Reduce Jet Noise’s concerns can be divided into two categories: the negative impact of the jets, and what they feel has been indifference to their concerns from port officials.

Yet Zenk, who has fielded comments and questions from the group’s members for months in public and private meetings, said the port is committed to addressing concerns about jet noise and airport expansion plans.

“It is a delicate balance between being able to provide service at the airport and also not negatively impact the members of the community,” Zenk said. “The challenge is finding that ideal balance. With the master plan process, we’re hoping we can find that balance.”

Through the master plan update, the port has utilized several methods to get feedback. It has posted an online comment form on its website. A public information meeting was held in April, and another is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 10.

Zenk said the upcoming meeting will focus on what future airport facilities might look like. He said the port’s governing commission has directed the airport to follow a “slow growth” strategy to ensure its facilities don’t expand beyond what current demand calls for.

The October meeting will give the public a chance to comment on what that strategy might look like, Zenk said.

In terms of public support for the expansion, port officials have pointed to a 2011 survey completed by the Gilmore Research Group that found more than 80 percent of respondents in a random pool of 622 locals favored the airport getting bigger.

But local resident Matt Paskus thinks the Gilmore survey is moot.

Paskus questioned the survey’s ability to test public opinion. He said he thinks it served  more as a marketing effort for the port. As an example, he pointed to one question, which asked respondents to reply to the prompt: “Flights out of the Bellingham airport allow me to easily travel when and where I want to go.”

Paskus said no matter what reply is given—either a respondent agrees or disagrees with the statement—the answer would either imply support for the airport’s current expansion or signal a desire for more flights. No option is available for those opposed to the airport’s current traffic, he said.

While Zenk said the port stands by the Gilmore survey as an accurate sample of community opinion, he also said it is not the only way the agency is keeping tabs on public sentiment. Meetings and other requests for comments are in play, as well, he said.

The port has received many comments from local residents supporting the expansion, Zenk said, as well as the increased travel options and potential economic boost it could bring.

Matt Paskus has become a familiar face for port officials. He has closely followed developments at the airport for years, attending meetings and emailing port commissioners with an array of aviation-related questions.

Paskus’ house is on Marine Drive, just south of the airport. When he bought the property in 2000, flight activity was a sliver of what it is today, he said. Now, with the increased number of takeoffs and landings, on days with certain weather conditions, he said he comes home to the smell of jet fuel.

He said the airport officials should have done a better job engaging with local residents when traffic levels first began to climb back in 2005. With the airport already in expansion mode, he said it may now be almost too late for his neighbors to be equal partners with port officials in deciding the airport’s future.

Zenk said all concerns on the expansion are taken seriously and are an important part of the master plan process. He said he knows there are people negatively impacted by jet traffic in the area, and he’s sympathetic to that.

The members of Reduce Jet Noise plan to carry their message forward.

For Ahwren Ayers, who lives north of the airport and runs a small pet-grooming business in Bellingham, the group’s advocacy has value.

“I think it’s important for people to learn that we do have a voice, and it’s important to do something to communicate to them what it is,” Ayers said.

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805. 

This is the second piece of a two-part series. Read the first installment: Will a growing Bellingham International Airport boost commerce?

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