By Jack Mayne
A relatively quiet Des Moines City Council meeting last week was enlivened a bit when long-time resident and regular citizen commenter ‘Redondo Rick’ Johnson wondered why the city is silent on the potential of changes in landing and takeoff patterns and more noise from planes from Sea-Tac Airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration is implementing “NextGen,” a new National Airspace System across the country in stages with completion targeted by 2025. “NextGen” changes the country’s air traffic control system from a radar-based system with radio communication to a satellite-based one, affecting all types of air travel nationally.
A major impact has been changes in takeoff patterns that force light jet commuter planes to turn at relatively low altitudes and increased noise for residents below.
Burien filed a petition on Feb. 15 in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco of the FAA’s NextGen decision to turn jet-prop airliners, causing unexpected and unusual airplane noise and potential damaging fuel residue to be dumped on residents.
Council ‘silence’ questioned
Johnson started a bit of a local furor when he told the City Council meeting (March 9) that he does not see Councilmembers at meetings where “next generation” air transportation controls are discussed.
“The lack of involvement by our City Council is rather disturbing,” Johnson said. “Why? That’s the question. Why haven’t more of you taken initiative to look into NextGen and see what it is all about?”
He said he has been to many meetings on the subject and has “only seen” Mayor Matt Pina, City Manager Michael Matthias and Councilmember Dave Kaplan “at some of the meetings.”
“Why hasn’t the city taken a stand and joined with other cities in fighting this?” Johnson asked the Council “The least you can do is to let the residents of Des Moines know the reasoning as to why you have been silent so long.”
Johnson said that Councilmember Melissa Musser asked last December to put NextGen on the Council agenda and “Well, folks, we are well into March … how much longer are you going to sit on your hands and do nothing?”
He concluded by saying the city should “get involved with the elephant next door, we all have you back.
“Typically we don’t respond to public comments,” said Matthias said, but added, “Mr. Johnson, I would like to respond to you.”
Des Moines city staff and the mayor met with the anti-airplane noise Quiet Skies Coalition of which Burien’s coalition is a part. Matthias added that he and Assistant City Manager Dan Brewer met with regional FAA officials in regard to NextGen.
He said the FAA is reluctant to participate in a Des Moines Council study session with Sea-Tac Airport managing director Lance Lyttle because “they are hesitant, basically reluctant to participate since they are in a lawsuit filed by the City of Burien.”
He noted that the mayor has said in Council meeting report that he has attended meetings with mayors of other cities “to discuss Sea-Tac Airport.”
“We have communicated with the Port and the airport our concern about the narrowing bandwidth of arrivals and takeoffs and the people that are within the narrowing bandwidth (or air traffic noise) as the result of NextGen and the accuracy of the satellite guidance systems that those people deserve some form of mitigation. We have investigated the availability of funding for the home insulation.”
Matthias said the city will make public comment about mitigation, “probably to the Port,” when they have the opportunity.
He said the city has contributed $25,000 in support of state Rep. Tina Orwall’s bill to have new studies on ultra fine particles, and potentially harmful exhaust particles from jet airliners. Des Moines also testified in support of the legislation in both the Washington State Senate and the House of Representatives.
Matthias said “that is what we’ve done” in response to Johnson’s statement that the city has “done nothing” about NextGen.
Not necessarily Blog material
Talking from the floor, Johnson said other than the city’s contribution of $25,000 for Orwall’s legislation, “we haven’t seen anything in the media … absolutely nothing … nothing has been in the (Waterland) Blog, nothing in media sources at all. How do we know if we are not told?”
“There are some negotiations that are best not served in public,” said Mayor Matt Pina. “I am sorry you may not like that, but the reality is when you are working through issues, and you are working with multiple municipalities … litigation is hanging over some of them, so they are reluctant to say certain things.
“We are doing everything we can to move things forward, we absolutely are, we are committed to the quality of life here in Des Moines and the citizens here, the air quality, the noise, everything,” said Pina.
“We are happy to report on what we are doing, it just is not necessarily Blog material,” the mayor said.
‘Mixed report card’
But on Saturday (March 11) Quiet Skies Puget Sound issued a statement that “gives mixed report card to Des Moines” on its concern about NextGen (download PDF here).
The group acknowledged progress, “but much more to do on new jet noise and health issues.”
Des Moines is “silent on other key issues, including new flight paths and new noise over parts of the city not previously subjected to aircraft over-flights.”
The anti-noise group wonders if the city has a position on the new flight paths and resultant noise.
“Does the City intend to oppose increased flights and new flight paths if they cause harm to human health and the environment?” Quiet Skies Puget Sound asks. “Further, the City has failed to publicly discuss, let alone express its support for, pending national legislation – including the Quiet Communities Act – addressing NextGen flight path and noise problems, even though the Council was provided a draft motion in November for consideration.”
Rep. Adam Smith, a member of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, sponsors the legislation in Congress.
“We fail to see any reason Des Moines is not speaking up on the record in support,” said the Puget Sound group news release.
The Quiet Skies group said the recent Des Moines comments “are the first public comments from our City since we began bringing the issues to the City’s attention in November of 2016.”
The group said that changes in the flight paths “should be opposed or adequately mitigated,” and that the city “inexplicably fails to address aircraft flying new routes outside historical flight paths.”
If the city were informed, the Quiet Skies group hopes “the city will exercise maximum transparency and publicly share what it learned, certainly no later than the next City Council meeting.”
It adds there is “no legal or practical reason” not to tell people what the FAA or the Port of Seattle are proposing.