TACOMA — In October, Pierce County government leaders made it clear they opposed siting a major airport within the county’s borders. Officials requested that a commission studying the viability of two rural areas near Graham and Roy cease doing so.
The two sites are among three greenfield finalists under deliberation by the state Legislature-created Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, which is tasked with recommending a site to the state in June amid a three-year effort to find a suitable place for a new regional commercial airport.
“If it is up to local government, then I think they should start looking elsewhere,” county Executive Bruce Dammeier recently told The News Tribune.
The question is whether Pierce County has control to dictate what could develop in its backyard. The answer is a little complicated.
While the state has authority over airport plans, the county can use its voice to influence site decisions, and Washington legislators have vowed to listen. The county can also enforce local regulatory measures. Aside from that, airports are deemed “essential public facilities” under state law and cannot be blocked by local governments.
“An airport can’t proceed without an agreement of the Legislature, and there’s no way that I will agree to proceed without the agreement of local governments,” said House Republican Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
Wilcox, a member of the county’s legislative delegation, said he will be backing a bill that Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, plans to introduce this month that would restart the process to identify a preferred airport location due to concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic hampered necessary research and public outreach.
Dammeier said the county will lean on Wilcox and others in the delegation, who he noted held key roles, to amplify local concerns from county government, residents, tribes and environmental groups.
“When you have the coalition of interests opposing it, I think our state legislative delegation from Pierce County will feel bound to try to support those interests,” he said.
The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission’s website indicated that a decision to build or expand an airport would require agreement between a number of stakeholders, including local jurisdictions.
State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the unanimously-approved bill in 2019 that created the commission and directed it to search for a feasible site, said that public buy-in was important and that officials could not “ramrod” an airport into a community.
“You need to understand the opportunity and work with people,” said Keiser, who is opposed to re-starting the process.
As legislators promise to strongly consider local attitudes, there appears to be little else in the way of the state moving forward with an airport site if lawmakers feel it is appropriate. The county will hold considerably less power after a location is chosen, according to an attorney who represents airport sponsors and local governments.
“When you’ve made a decision to build an airport, the local government is giving up an enormous amount of control, and that’s the reason why the initial decision is so important,” said Peter Kirsch, a founding partner with Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell.
Kirsch, whose clients include Snohomish County Airport (Paine Field), which is currently under consideration for expansion, spoke to The News Tribune in his personal capacity.
Although local control becomes “very limited” once an airport is sited, to get to that point is also extremely difficult without political support from the host jurisdiction, he added, noting that was why conversations in past years to build a new airport in Puget Sound have fallen flat.
Amid projections that Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is expected to be unable to accommodate rising commercial passenger and air cargo volumes in the near future, the state Legislature has sought to find a fitting location for a new airport that would be operational by 2040.
Officials have warned of serious economic and travel repercussions if no action is taken.
‘Essential public facilities’
From a technical perspective, Washington is a home-rule state, meaning that local governments have authority to act on issues as they wish unless explicitly preempted by the state constitution or statutes, according to a 2021 report on home rule by the Association of Washington Cities.
That is where a state law on siting so-called essential public facilities comes into play. It falls under the Growth Management Act, which aims to reduce sprawl on undeveloped land, among other planning goals.
The statute requires that development plans from local governments include a process for placing public facilities deemed essential, including those typically difficult to site, such as substance-abuse, correctional and solid-waste facilities, and airports.
“No local comprehensive plan or development regulation may preclude the siting of essential public facilities,” the statute reads.
During a public meeting of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission in August, the issue of local control was raised by Rob Hodgman, senior aviation planner for the state Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division, which has given staff support and technical assistance to the commission.
Since Washington was a home-rule state, he said, “it’s really the local governments that have the authority to make decisions about whether to expand an existing airport or create a new airport, so counties, cities and port districts — ultimately the buck stops with them.”
In a recent interview, Hodgman said that “what we have is a couple of competing priorities,” referring to home rule and the essential public facilities statute, adding that it was likely an issue for the state Legislature’s legal counsel to address.
The essential public facilities statute in recent years has been intertwined in debates over proposed local developments, as detailed in previous reporting by The News Tribune.
In March 2017, Tacoma city officials passed interim rules that barred the Northwest Detention Center from future expansion, only to later roll back those regulations amid advice from their legal counsel that the federal immigration detention center constituted an essential public facility.
A new-look City Council resurrected the restrictions on expansion in February 2018, leading to a lawsuit from the detention center’s private operator, GEO Group. Two years later, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that excluded privately run detention centers, by definition, from being considered essential public facilities.
For more than four years, the city of Puyallup had been embroiled in a fight with a nonprofit over restrictions on siting day-use centers and overnight shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit, Homeward Bound, which owns the Puyallup-based homeless resource center New Hope, had argued that day-use centers and overnight shelters should be considered essential public facilities and that a 2018 city ordinance limiting where they could be sited had violated the Growth Management Act.
The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division II, sided against Homeward Bound in September — in part, on a technicality. The appellate court decision also raised important points as it relates to the state law.
Even if day-use centers and overnight shelters had been essential public facilities, the court determined, the city had not precluded their siting because the city’s municipal code set aside nearly 200 acres in Puyallup for those uses. Any project would be subjected to discretionary city approval through a necessary conditional-use permit.
“The permitting and application requirements may make siting such facilities more costly, but not impracticable,” the court’s decision stated.
The appellate court also cited a previous case involving the city of Des Moines, when a third runway was being added to Sea-Tac. The state’s Court of Appeals, Division I, concluded that the city’s permitting and mitigation requirements — although raising the cost of the project — did not make it impossible for the runway to be built.
In short, local governments do appear to retain some share of control.
In June 2020, Lakewood assistant city manager Dave Bugher noted as much, while city leaders raised questions about a planned new Western State Hospital campus. They acknowledged they could not stop its development because it was an essential public facility.
“Under the Growth Management Act, we can’t say no. However, we can definitely address mitigation measures — clarification on parking, addressing tree removal, compliance with the state’s new energy codes for construction of these types of institutional buildings, and potential road improvements,” Bugher said at the time.
Inslee’s proposed state budget last month included $900 million for funding the project’s construction.
Dammeier, a former Washington legislator in the Senate and House, said he is moving forward with an understanding that the county’s airport future is in the state’s hands. But he said the county is prepared to use any leverage it might have, whether it be through permitting or challenging a local siting of an airport through the courts, as he suspected other groups and residents might do.
A willing airport sponsor would also be necessary to be the lead agency in developing any project. Typically a sponsor is a local government, according to people interviewed for this story. In theory, the county could wield power by refusing to take on that role.
“We would use every tool available to us to protect the people in Pierce County,” Dammeier said.