Pilots in Eatonville, Washington, say that a developer’s plan to build homes adjacent to their local airport, Swanson Field (SW3), is a back-door attempt to close the airport.
The proposed development would create 23 to 27 lots on 18 acres that wrap about the south and east sides of the airport, which was built by the Swanson family in the 1960s.
Dubbed Aviator Heights by developers Summit Properties and Jerry Nybo Construction of Puyallup, Washington, the development will not be homes with hangars attached. Instead, residents will have the opportunity to build hangars on airport property by the runway.
The two sides have distinctly different interpretations of the development’s impact on the airport.
A main concern of pilots is that the development isn’t a true airpark.
“The homes as proposed do not have access to the runway,” said Steve VanCleve, a pilot who is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Airport Support Network volunteer for Swanson Field. “The developer is talking about building hangars down by the runway, but they penetrate the FAR Part 77 (Objects Affecting Navigable Airspace) because they are (planned) so close to the runway.”
VanCleve says the promise of hangar construction is a means to placate the aviation community — and he’s doubtful the hangars will ever be built.
He’s also worried that the development will change the zoning at the airport. Current zoning allows for residential, aviation commercial and industrial land use. VanCleve fears that the developer will impose a covenant on each lot that will prohibit commercial and industrial use.
“In essence, this is a back-door attempt to rezone part of the airport district, since this will bar access to the runway and prohibit commercial, industrial use,” he said. “The net result is that you have changed the land use from airport use to a housing development.”
No zoning change is planned, according to Nick Bond, town planner for Eatonville, noting that when the hangars are built “they will have to follow the rules regarding building on an airport.”
AN INCOMPATIBLE USE?
Local pilots are not the only ones with concerns about the impact of the housing development.
State law requires that all cities adopt comprehensive policies and regulations to discourage development of incompatible land uses adjacent to public use airports. According to a letter sent to Bond from the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Aviation Heights development lies within the airport’s safety zone and the flight path for runway 34. Residents who choose to live in this area would have a “low quality of life due to noise, vibration, light, glare, fumes and low-flying aircraft activity generated by airport operations,” the letter stated.
“Historically there have been homes and hangars built around this airport,” said David Tiff, an attorney for Summit Properties. “We are not doing anything more than what has already been done for decades and decades.”
The homes will be built on a tiered hillside and each home could have a hangar on a separate lot on the airport, Tiff said, explaining moving aircraft up and down hills through a subdivision would be logistically difficult, as well as create a safety issue.
“We have designed this to keep a safe distance between the homes and the aircraft operations,” he said. “There are 16 existing structures at or near the airstrip and our proposal is to simply add a row of hangars that are set back further than some of the existing structures.”
Tiff noted that the buyers of the lots would be made aware that there is an active, albeit a small, airport next door when they purchase the lots but he did not have the details on how the notification would take place.
“This is a rural airport. It is a small unregulated airstrip,” he said. “There has never been or will be instrument landings at this airport. Our clients removed a portion of a hillside and standing timber that would have arguably been a height intrusion into the final approach so our clients have actually improved the safety of the final approach to this airport.”
When asked if any of the homes would be built beneath the airport traffic pattern, Tiff replied that there was no real traffic pattern at the airport because it is so rural.
“Every airport has a traffic pattern,” VanCleve countered. “The Swanson Field traffic pattern is left traffic for 34 and right for 16.”
Just as there is a difference in the interpretation of “airport traffic pattern,” there is a difference of interpretation of a recent letter sent to the City of Eatonville Planning Commission from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) about the development. The PSRC oversees transportation infrastructure in the region, which includes airports.
According to VanCleve’s interpretation, the letter indicates that if the city of Eatonville proceeds with the development and violates ordinances designed to protect the airport from incompatible land use, the PSRC could withhold grants that the community needs to improve, maintain and build roads.
The developers see it a different way.
“It is our position that the PSRC does not have any jurisdiction over local land use issues and that is what this is with the city of Eatonville,” said Tiff. “I have read the letter and I don’t believe they have threatened any grant money. The Eatonville city attorney sought further clarification from the council specifically, and the council said that they were not going to withhold grant money.”
General Aviation News obtained a copy of the letter. In it the PRSC asks for more information about the proposed project, noting that the PRSC is concerned that the proposal “appears to be inconsistent with state law” in regard to protecting airports from incompatible use.
In the letter there are two references to an application for a Rural Town Centers and Corridors grant.
According to the letter, the PRSC decided that since the town had not adequately addressed the issues related to Swanson Field, the corridor project could only be “conditionally approved” pending the town’s incorporating development regulations to address the issue of airport compatible land use.
The PSRC gave the conditional approval with the understanding that the town would make the necessary adjustments to protect the airport and would enforce the ordinances designed to do that. The letter notes that the PSRC had received letters from the Washington State Department of Transportation Aviation Division and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association concerning the project. These letters raise questions about the accuracy of the technical information used by the town to develop its airport overlay zone. If the technical information is incorrect, it is possible that the proposed development will pose a hazard to air navigation.
“The municipality reinvented their height standards to make this development legal and, by doing so, exposed the town to unnecessary liability,” said Stephen Kiehl, principal planner with the PSRC. “If they bend the rules to approve this subdivision and then something horrible happens, they would have to go back over this and determine why those rules were changed.
“In essence, our letter asks the planning commission not to make a decision on the subdivision until they have their final review by the FAA and answer the outstanding questions posed by the FAA, AOPA, WSDOT and the PSRC,” Kiehl continued. “The FAA wants them to do more study and answer more questions before they will approve the plan.”
Kiehl noted that the current proposal submitted to the FAA showed only one house in the development. “They need to submit a plan that shows the entire subdivision,” he said.
A letter dated Nov. 14 sent to Summit Properties by the FAA indicates approval of one building on lot five, but also notes that separate submittals are required for the construction of additional structures, including hangars. The letter notes that the FAA is allowed by law to assess a civil penalty against any person who violates federal regulations, including FAR Part 77.
The last paragraph of the letter indicates that the FAA, along with the WSDOT Aviation Division and AOPA, “have serious concerns with the proposed development around the airport.”
As this issue was going to press neither the municipality nor the FAA had given final approval for the development.
For more information: