Dunn: New Plateau airport “dead on arrival”

From city council members to the state legislature, elected officials will fight against putting an airport on the Plateau.

Leaders from the local level to the legislature said they’re against the idea of a major airport on the Enumclaw Plateau and would fight against it — that is, if the project ever gets its wings.

“I believe an airport on the Enumclaw Plateau is dead on arrival, and I will do everything within my power to make sure that it doesn’t happen,” said King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who represents southeast King County. “We have neither the infrastructure to support it, nor do we have the population density to require it.”

The site, which would be just east of the Muckleshoot Reservation, remains purely theoretical. It was presented in June as one of ten “greenfield” options by a state Department of Transportation consultant to the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC).

The commission was created by the legislature in 2019 because Sea-Tac is projected to soon run out of capacity, which would undercut job and economic growth and cause problems at the airport. Its job is to recommend a site for the region’s next major airport by June next year. The commission has not made any recommendations yet and is not promoting any specific location.

Approving the site would require state legislature buy-in, not to mention handling the legal, environmental, land use, and high wind issues the Plateau presents, Dunn said. And if any of those steps required a vote by King County residents or the county council, “neither … is going to go well” for fans of a King County Southeast airport, he added.

“It would be an extraordinary, double back shot from the other side of the basketball court,” Dunn said. “This strikes me as a proposal that isn’t going to get off the ground. But wisdom has taught me that every now and again, something gets a little bit of legs, and I’m going to cut it off at knees.”

All sitting 31st District legislators said they opposed the Plateau location, citing the difficulty in building new infrastructure, the risk of changing the culture of the Plateau and the legislature’s own restriction on the CACC recommending the site in the first place.

In an email, 31st District Senator Phil Fortunato called it “the stupidest proposal I have ever heard.”

It would destroy the rural way of life in the area, force billions in spending on highway infrastructure and construction in the area and spend property values and taxes skyrocketing, too, he predicted. Fortunato said a better solution would involve moving cargo functions from Sea-Tac to a new airport in order to free up growth for passengers at Sea-Tac. He said he plans to send a letter to the CACC, hoping to get sign-ons from his colleagues in the House and Senate, pledging not to consider voting on any proposal that recommends a King County location.

The idea is “absurd,” said State Representative Drew Stokesbary, who represents the Plateau area. The Plateau’s rural nature, lack of infrastructure and sensitive salmon run routes are all reasons to oppose it, he wrote in an email.

“As the Ranking Member on the House Appropriations Committee, I’ll do everything I can to block funding for this idea, and work with other legislators … to stop this idea in its tracks,” Stokesbary wrote.

Representative Eric Robertson said the state has already failed to address safety and congestion issues on SR 410 and 164, and planting a brand-new airport in the area would only make those concerns more pressing.

“As a member of the House Transportation Committee, I will strive to find a reasonable solution – with a focus on expanding current airports with existing infrastructure,” he wrote in an email.

King County Executive Dow Constantine isn’t enthusiastic about the idea either.

“The Executive hasn’t had a chance to review all the information yet but is highly skeptical that Enumclaw has the appropriate infrastructure to support a new airport without fundamentally altering everything that’s great about the area,” King County executive spokesperson Chase Gallagher said in an email July 21.

Other than the greenfields, CACC has also considered six existing airfields and determined that only one — Paine Field in Snohomish — has the potential to handle additional passenger and cargo service. But even that might not be enough: In a February report, the commission found that meeting all of the projected demand for air travel will require both expanding existing airports and building a new one.

The Southeast King County location ranked highest out of the consultant’s initial set of criteria for the greenfields, which include terrain flatness, environmental justice, floodplain and wetland presence and population density. But legal and practical questions exist that would complicate any efforts to put the airport here, not to mention that the project would require legislative and FAA approval.

For one: The state legislation (2019’s SB 5370) that created the CACC also prevents it from recommending a new or expanded site in a county with two million or more people — i.e., King County.

The CACC can certainly evaluate or be briefed on those potential sites, but “the interpretation to date is that the CACC cannot make a recommendation within King County without a change to the legislation,” WSDOT Aviation spokesperson Christina Crea said in an email.

Until then, the consultants and CACC still have more research to do on “King County Southeast” and other proposed locations.

Enumclaw Mayor Jan Molinaro said the city is “strongly opposed” to the location and will work to steer the project away from the Plateau.

City council member Corrie Koopman Frazier concurred, calling the idea of putting the airport on the Plateau “ridiculous.” Other airport locations, like in Everett or east on the I-90 corridor, already have freeway access and infrastructure to better accommodate the passengers and industry an airport would bring, she said.

Koopman Frazier said she hopes the commission drops the site from consideration by their next meeting, and she encouraged locals in the meantime to share their concerns with the commission as well as their elected officials.

The site “encompasses many generations of family owned income producing farmland, trees, wetlands and creeks with protected salmon runs — all in the shadow of Mt. Rainier — rare, beautiful land including some of the only working dairy farms left in King County,” Koopman Frazier said.

Fellow council member Chris Gruner, who is an airline pilot, said he’s also “strongly against” the idea. Noise from landing and departing planes would be an issue for nearby residents, and while airports have ways of mitigating those concerns — such as limiting departure hours or reducing power usage at takeoff — those would be compromises that could be avoided altogether if the airport was built elsewhere, he said.

Given the measures voters have approved to maintain the character of the Plateau, such as the King County Land Conservation Initiative, paving over that farmland to create a major airport would be “a bait-and-switch” and a breach of trust, he said. And the project could also create major transportation problems, Gruner said, because the Plateau has natural barriers to the south and west in the form of the White River, and the Cascade Foothills to the east, that already create several traffic bottlenecks.

But the potential site “does have the least amount of red on the consultant’s slide,” Gruner said, referring to the presentation to the CACC that explained King County Southeast’s benefits and drawbacks. “So I think we need to take it seriously.”

The Courier-Herald also reached out to each member of the King County and Enumclaw City councils, Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chairperson Jaison Elkins, the mayors of Auburn, Buckley, Black Diamond and all six legislators of state legislative Districts 31 and 5 for this story. We’ll report on their responses as we hear from them.