— by Katie Wilkins, Orcas Issues reporter —
Members of the public filled the airport conference room to overflowing on May 9 for the port’s regular meeting and a final opportunity for public comment before the commissioners’ planned vote on chapter four of the Airport Master Plan, the last chapter of the plan that requires FAA approval.
The commissioners heard comment from people present on remaining concerns about the plan, including multiple requests to postpone a vote until after the November elections when there will be a fully elected board. Currently, three out of five commissioners hold their seats by appointment to fill vacancies created when elected commissioners resigned over the past winter.
After closing public comment, commission chair Greg Sawyer paused to clarify the port’s procedure for notifying the public of port meetings and agendas. He then reopened discussion of the Airport Master Plan, which consisted almost exclusively of port commissioners defending the plan and their readiness to vote on it. The vote quickly followed, and the commissioners unanimously approved chapter four for submission to the FAA. The rest of the meeting, conducted amidst dwindling public attendance, mostly involved discussion of staffing structure, although no further action was taken. Public access was reopened for the last few minutes of the meeting, unleashing the frustration of the remaining members of the public on the port for their handling of the meeting and the greater Airport Master Plan process. Adjournment was then called, with tentative plans for a special meeting on May 23 to continue the discussion of staffing.
After approval of vouchers and the minutes from the previous week’s meeting, public access period was opened and the port commission heard from the public on a range of topics, including, but not limited to, the
Airport Master Plan.
Charles Toxey began with a concern based on information from the May 2 meeting, when Tony Simpson brought up the idea of the port sending a letter to neighboring property owner George Larson—if he requested it—signaling the possibility of exercising eminent domain in order to lower the capital gains for the property if Larson intended to sell it. As another neighboring land owner, Toxey was troubled by this suggestion, stating that “it’s none of the port’s business” and that using such a letter “as a tool to obtain a tax break for a private citizen is tantamount to fraud.” Greg Sawyer responded that this concern was based on “a misunderstanding.” When Toxey asked for confirmation that the port did not intend to take such an action, Sawyer replied “Not that I am aware of,” and he invited Toxey to more discussion after the meeting.
George Larson also spoke, and his cheerful statement that “I don’t want to sell my property” brought laughter and applause to what was otherwise a mostly tense meeting. He also made some comments about the Airport Master Plan, including the idea that plans for the Eastsound airport be considered along with the Friday Harbor airport. “We don’t have to have SeaTac on both islands,” he said, noting that Friday Harbor already has physical and financial resources that the Eastsound airport does not. He further suggested a system of radio toggle light warnings, which would prevent two planes from overlapping with each other on take-off and landing. Larson stated that this is a system already in use at the Friday Harbor airport. He proposed that it be investigated as a way to avoid the need to increase the separation distance between the taxiway and runway—a concept included in the Master Plan that the port has prioritized.
There were several appeals during public comment for the port commission to wait until after November elections to vote or take further action on the airport master plan. Pierrette Guimond, Susan Malins, Melinda Milligan, Greg Oaksen, and Michael Triplett all came out in favor of waiting for a fully elected board, and Triplett’s request for a show of hands indicated an additional dozen or more people in favor of waiting to vote on the Master Plan until after November elections. Susan Malins asked, “Why the rush? What is the deadline?” She added that there are “three new commissioners and a lot of strong public sentiment, and the future of our forested wetland and our citizenry in my opinion at risk here,” and ended by urging the commissioners: “When in doubt, pause. Perhaps you have no doubts, in that case, you do not represent the public.”
After closing public access time, commission chair Greg Sawyer thanked member of the public for their attendance and “very orderly public comment.” He also wanted to remind those present that “public comment is a one-way communication. It’s an opportunity for you to stand up and deliver a message to the commissioners.” Sawyer said that “it’s not customary” for commissioners to answer questions during public comment, although sometimes they will, and that “the more appropriate way to get an answer if you have a question is to direct them to the airport manager or reach out to one of us individually.”
Sawyer also took time during the meeting to address concerns about consistency in public notifications of port meetings and agendas. Sawyer stated that in the future the port will use the following methods to inform the public of port meetings: notifying the Sounder and Orcas Issues, posting to the port’s website, and emailing notices directly to any person who requests to be added to an email list for this purpose. Sawyer added that the port will aim to publicize agendas “as early as possible,” and will post them both on the port’s website and in physical form at the post office, the library, and the airport conference room door.
After making this clarification, Sawyer re-opened discussion on the Airport Master Plan, which mostly consisted of the commissioners’ defense of the port’s process thus far and its intention to move forward with the plan as is. Sawyer started by laying the blame on DOWL for failing to better engage the public during the planning process, saying, “you can blame us, but we will turn around and blame our engineering firm [DOWL]. We hired someone, it’s their job to reach out and hold these forums, engage with the public and collect the data. It’s our job to review the data and make the decisions.” He went on the try to reassure the public that not everything in the Airport Master Plan will necessarily be turned into reality:
“The Master Plan process is not planning a project, at all. Everything that is in that ALP [Airport Layout Plan] is like a vision to the future. It’s an examination of where we are today, and where we might go in the future. It’s a listing of clear and obvious deficiencies, and clear and obvious actions.[…] We’re not lengthening the runway. We’re not planning to attract more aircraft and larger aircraft. All we want to do is accommodate the users that are here today.”
Clyde Duke concurred that the Master Plan is “a starting point for discussion. […] It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.” Sawyer further stressed that the port will not likely have the resources to carry out most of the projects laid out in the Master Plan, and that public fear over prospects like moving Mt. Baker Road, or acquiring property from and expanding into Brandt’s Landing is “worrying about something that isn’t likely to ever happen.”
These comments were followed by a lengthy, obliquely related discourse from Bea vonTobel about her experiences as airport manager. She assured the public that she had read all the public comments about the Master Plan, that “the commissioners that are here now have done their homework” and that “this Master Plan and the ALP are a point of departure. You file a flight plan. Things change during the status of a flight.” Shortly thereafter, Steve Hopkins introduced a motion to approve the ALP and chapter four, giving DOWL permission to transmit it to the FAA for approval. Bea vonTobel seconded the motion, and the commission approved it by unanimous vote.
Most of the remaining meeting time was spent on discussing the relative merits of different staffing options, which has been an ongoing topic at port meetings. This included the question of whether the port needs dedicated staff to deal with issues of FAA compliance, or if, as commissioner Poke Haffner suggested, the port could hire someone temporarily during periods of increased activity, such as during an Airport Master Plan update. It was pointed out that the search for a permanent airport manager is ongoing and that prospective candidates need to be contacted to determine if they are still interested. It was also noted that the job description for this position may require change if the staffing structure changes. Commissioners agreed to tentatively schedule a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. on May 23 to further address staffing structure and job descriptions.
Public attendance dwindled throughout this discussion, so that by the time Greg Sawyer re-opened public comment due to citizen request, eight members of the public were left in the room. What ensued was a variety of expressions of frustration and disappointment for the way the port conducted the meeting and failed to take public concerns into account. The meeting ended with a single question from a member of the public who wished to remain anonymous: “Where do we go from here?” A reply came from fellow attendee Michael Triplett: “To the ballot box.”