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Quietly, airport makes noise about growth

Neal Sealock has started a whisper campaign about noise.

As director of Spokane International Airport, his job is to assure the sprawling facility retains the capability to become the economic development engine he and many Spokane officials believe it can be. Combined with its ready access to Interstate 90, and the pending addition of a rail spur, the airport could become an alternative to SeaTac and its associated congestion.

Unless congestion comes to constrict the Spokane airport as well.

Airports have a very long planning horizon — 50 years. Think backward to the years before jet transportation, and you get a sense of the transformation that occurs over half a century. Looking ahead, officials anticipate construction of a third runway that would substantially increase airport activity, possibly agitating the occupants of adjacent residential, commercial and industrial developments.

Worst case, says Sealock, is a situation something like that at Chicago’s Midway Airport, where there is so little room a skidding airliner in December hurled through a fence at the end of the runway and struck two vehicles. A 6-year-old boy was killed.

The West Plains, obviously, are a far cry from Chicago’s south side. But as the Spokane Valley builds out, the ready access to downtown Spokane from the area around Airway Heights will become increasingly attractive to developers. The vanguard has already arrived. Airway Heights has more residential living units in the permitting pipeline — 200-plus — than were approved the last three years.

The Federal Aviation Administration takes a dim view of residential development close to airports. The agency suggests local authorities either ban all new housing where average noise levels over a 24-hour period exceed those characteristic of passing aircraft, or require soundproofing. For the Spokane airport’s main runway, the affected area, or “noise overlay,” extends westward as far as the I-90 Four Lakes Interchange and eastward to Indian Canyon Golf Course. Depending on the alignment of a third runway, the westward extension could reach the northern tip of East Medical Lake.

A separate but overlapping overlay for Fairchild Air Force Base also extends eastward to Indian Canyon, and westward to the intersection of Espanola and Hallett roads.

Airway Heights has chosen to avoid noise issues by restricting all new residential development to areas north of Highway 2. So Sealock says he is more concerned about development east of the city, where the road intersects the glide path into the main runway, and possibly that of the third runway.

To protect the airport, Sealock and the airport board last month submitted a list of proposed changes to the county zoning code. The most extreme asks the county to adopt FAA guidelines on residential development within the noise overlay.

Also, airport officials want all owners of property within the noise overlay to sign easements waiving any right to litigation based on noise, dust, fumes or similar airport-related nuisances, now or in the future. Easements are already a requirement, but not all property owners sign them.

And, finally, disclosures regarding high noise levels should be given all future property purchasers or tenants.

Spokane County Planning Director Jim Manson says the airport’s recommendations will be reviewed in conjunction with an ongoing update of the comprehensive plan, a process scheduled for completion in December.

“We want to protect Spokane International Airport as well as Fairchild,” Manson says.

Sealock says he is not concerned about any immediate threat to the airport, but wants to be sure mechanisms are in place that will minimize future conflicts over land use.

“We must not let sprawl compromise future airport functionality,” he says. “We shouldn’t give up this gem.”

Make that gems. Fairchild is already the area’s largest employer. In the decades ahead, Spokane International has the potential to be its equal, or more. It would be a tragedy if the current pressure for development, and the malleability the county commissioners have shown when developers come calling, obscures a 30,000-foot perspective of the airport’s future.