Photo by Haley Ausbun. A cloudy day at Renton Municipal Airport.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. A cloudy day at Renton Municipal Airport.

Seaplane pilots, businesses say no to FAA plans

Local businesses and pilots ask Renton to reconsider airport master plan

Renton Airport businesses, including the seaplane base, pleaded to city council to ask for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to reverse a decision that grows more contentious each year and could entirely change the future of the airport.

FAA safety changes to the airport have raised concerns as it requires property off and on the airport. The first steps of the plan was determine how the runway would expand from north to south, and city council voted in 2019 to explore extending the runway into Lake Washington (after reviewing several extension alternatives.) That extension required the least amount of property acquisition south of Airport Way.

But the next step, alternatives for expanding the runway east to west, set off new concerns, as the alternatives require either tenants to the left or right of the runway to lose space for offices and hangars.

“We are going to have this great, big beautiful taxiway, but we can’t have the airplanes land on the runway because there won’t be any ramp space,” Proflight Aviation representative and RAAC committee member Diane Poholke said at the Jan. 11 city council meeting. “We’re essentially going to be building a freeway with no on/off ramps. Just a big piece of pavement there.”

Shane Carlson has been at the airport since the start of his family’s business 32 years ago, Northwest Seaplanes. He started taking flying lessons at age 15. The company offers chartered seaplane flights from Renton to San Juan Islands, Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Inside Passage.

He told councilmembers there would be a severe business impact to Northwest Seaplanes with this alternative. The new runway requirements could take as much as 70 percent of the seaplane base away.

“I don’t know how you would compare it. It’s like if you had a parking spot and (70) percent went away, could you park there?” Carlson said at public comment during a Renton city council meeting.

The city goes through an airport master plan update on a regular basis. This time, the FAA determined the number of take-offs from the Renton-Boeing-factory-built 737s required an upgrade of the runway safety done, which requires a significant increase to the length and width of the runway, and extension of the cleared safety zone around the runway. Because Renton has an odd situation (the large planes are just taking off after construction, not landing or carrying passengers at this airport) the plan was put on hold for three years to see if FAA could waive the standards, which it determined wasn’t possible, the runway must expand.

Because of the already lengthy discussion, the decision is unlikely to change, both airport staff and a representative at the Federal Aviation Administration said at a July 2019 Renton Airport Advisory Committee (RAAC) meeting. The only relief could come from the city making a “good faith effort” to evaluate the impacts of the FAA’s decision, and then modifying the plan. Still, several business and association representatives that would be hurt by the widened taxiways asked Renton City Council to ask the FAA to rescind its classification at both the Jan. 9 and Jan. 13 council meetings public comment.

“At this point I think you’ve seen a lot of good faith effort being put into resolving the impacts, which have been determined are significant,” Washington Seaplanes Pilot Association representative Steven Ratzlaff said. “Right now, the key thing is to see if you can get relief on the reclassification and (Washington Seaplanes Pilot Association) is prepared to help.”

Concerns about the plan came to light again after a federal grant, that was funding the work of the airport plan consultants Mead and Hunt, expired in September. The city had to give the rest of the grant money back to the FAA.

On Jan. 6, the airport, a self-funded entity under the city, requested city council approval to pay $214,366 to Mead and Hunt so the consultants can finish the master plan. Airport tenants then used the council’s revisit of the contract to plea for modifications.

According to city documents, staff amended the outline of the master plan so that Mead and Hunt will complete the necessary requirements for the plan, and must conclude by Dec. 31, 2020.

In response to public comments, councilmember Randy Corman said the re-designation is highly controversial, and even though the plan has to be completed to comply with FAA regulation and ensure grants for airport maintenance continue, it doesn’t change the fact that the designation should be re-examined.

“Don’t see (this contract) as us just accepting the fate of the re-designation, it’s just finishing data collection,” Corman said.

Council approved Mead and Hunt’s contract extension on Jan. 6.

It’s no telling if the future of the Boeing factory and construction at the plant could play a role in this plan, but if the modifications take place they are several years in future. And Mead and Hunt’s impact analysis of the plan and the environmental review will continue to factor into how much of this airport extension takes place.

The council will discuss the larger issue of the airport master plan in late February at the council retreat, Corman said at the Jan. 11 city council meeting.

Mayor Armondo Pavone said at both the Jan. 6 and Jan. 11 council meetings that he has asked staff to brief him on the issue, to understand where the city is at in the master plan process.

“We have a unique situation here, I don’t know if there’s another small airport in the world that does what this airport does,” Pavone said.

For more information on the master plan, visit rentonwa.gov/airport.

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