A zoning change can kill an airport — or, at the very least, cripple its development dramatically.
In a nutshell, that’s the issue facing Harvey Field (S43) in Snohomish, Wash., north of Seattle, where there’s a long waiting list for hangars but the airport cannot grow — or even make safety improvements to the runways — while several zoning issues are being sorted out.
The privately owned, public use airport is on about 180 acres carved out of the Harvey family homestead in the 1940s. It offers a flight school, a skydiving operation and a host of other small businesses. Traffic ranges from single- and multi-engine piston airplanes to helicopters, ultralights and gliders. It is an important reliever field for the busy Seattle metro area, as well.
From the air, the airport resembles an island of activity surrounded by agricultural fields, a few roads and the Snohomish River, which frequently floods. That’s one of the problems faced by airport owner Kandace Harvey. Nothing will change, she said, until the flood plain that the airport lies in can be re-mapped.
The affected airport land was part of an Urban Growth Area zoned for industrial development until 2004, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decided to re-map the area. FEMA then designated it as agricultural.
“After that, all the uses inside the Urban Growth Area became non-compliant,” said Harvey. “That means we cannot get the permits we need to do improvements, we cannot do the Master Plan update, and property values have been reduced because of the change from industrial to agricultural.”
Harvey Field sports two parallel runways, 14L-32R being its primary paved runway. Runway 14R-32L is turf and is used weather permitting. Both runways are 2,671 feet long.
Improvements proposed in the Master Plan include shifting the paved runway 400 feet to the south so that there is more separation between air traffic and obstructions north of the field. Currently, planes have to land over power lines, leaving behind them 400 feet of runway to reach the proper touchdown point. Other proposed improvements include the construction of hangars and a terminal on the west side of the airport.
“We have quite a waiting list,” said Harvey. “We also have a congestion problem on the taxiway.”
The airport’s Master Plan calls for moving rotorcraft operations to the west side of the airport, “but since we can’t build them a landing pad over there we have not been able to move them,” Harvey said. “We bought some 46 acres over there about 20 years ago to do those improvements, but we can’t do them now so the land just sits.
“We’ve been in a construction moratorium since 2004,” she continued. “When the zoning change first happened in 2004 we thought that it was going to be a difficult process to change it back, but the mistake, we thought, was correctable. Now we are not so sure that is the case.”
The airport’s proximity to the Snohomish River is key, specifically the impact of flooding on potential development in the area.
Snohomish County officials have filed a Conditional Letter of Map Revision (CLOMR) with FEMA requesting a revision to the current flood plain maps. The revision seeks to preserve the industrial uses in the area, as well as to increase development opportunities for agricultural interests in the valley.
A previous study done by FEMA allegedly did not address all the issues, asserts Washington Pilots Association President John Dobson, such as what happens to fish when the river floods.
“FEMA got sued by the Fish and Wildlife department for failing to take into account the fish,” said Dobson. “The lawsuit requires that any time FEMA goes through a re-mapping they have to go through a biological assessment, which is expensive.”
Dobson adds that the WPA, which has chapters all over the state, including one based at Harvey Field, has been watching the issue closely and letting county officials know that the process is under scrutiny.
“The county has 130 pages of documentation on this,” Dobson said. “The County Council passed a resolution over two years ago directing the planning department to complete the re-mapping. We are on re-mapping request number five.”
The pilots who are watching the issue see the time delay as a way to strangle the airport. The WPA is conducting a letter writing campaign to show its support for the re-mapping.
It’s the complexity of the issue that is creating the perceived delay, says Linda Kuller, chief planning officer for Snohomish County. According to Kuller, in 1999 FEMA decided that the land in the south Snohomish County Urban Growth Area couldn’t be considered floodway fringe but was, instead, the more restrictive density fringe which does not allow commercial or industrial development.
“We finished the CLOMR and submitted it to FEMA and it took a really long time for them to get back to us,” she said. “Then when FEMA was just about to give us a decision, they entered into a settlement in a lawsuit and decided that everyone had to do an endangered species analysis.”
Among the species in question are several types of salmon that live in the Snohomish River. The county has been consulting with federal agencies about the impact of flooding on the salmons’ habitat and ways to mitigate it.
The next step in the process is developing a budget to continue with the study.
“The total package right now is up around $300,000,” Kuller said. “It is not a quick or simple process by any means.”
For more information: SnohomishFlying.com.