When prompted on Thurston County-area legislative priorities during an interview at the Capitol in Olympia on Friday afternoon, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, smiled and asked, “You mean like things with wings?”
Indeed, airport proposals in south Thurston and Pierce counties have been a hot topic among lawmakers this session. The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) has been analyzing various sites in Washington to determine where to place the state’s next large international airport to keep up with growing demands at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The new airport is set to be built and operational by 2040. Among the possible placements were two locations in Pierce County and one in South Thurston County between Yelm and Tenino.
Because the proposals are in rural parts of the populous counties, community groups and governments have voiced concern that an airport of the proposed size and scale would threaten the communities’ ways of life and natural resources. There have also been environmental concerns in the areas being considered. Wilcox said he’s not aware of a single elected official in Pierce or Thurston counties who is in support of the current proposals.
“We are united, as we rarely are, in opposition to the airport,” Wilcox told the Nisqually Valley News. “And it’s not just the elected officials that are part of Washington state government, it is the Nisqually Tribe.”
The Nisqually Indian Tribe has released a statement that it is “strongly opposed” to the current proposals, which are on land the tribe lost in a treaty from the 1850s. Though Wilcox was not certain of its official stance, he said he thought the Puyallup Indian Tribe is likely against the current site proposals.
Wilcox believes there are three likely outcomes from him and his colleagues this session. One, he said, was that the Legislature moves forward with the current plans, which he called “really, really unlikely,” adding Pierce and Thurston lawmakers have significant sway.
“And because we’re unified, I don’t really see that happening,” he said.
The second possibility, Wilcox ventured, is the project will simply drift and no new airport will be built. The third, he said, is the state restarting the entire process.
“We define it in a way that means that every part of the state is considered and that we take a much stronger look at the existing airports that are not Sea-Tac size now, but have potential,” Wilcox said. “I think that’s got a reasonable chance of happening.”
The CACC, according to 19th District Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, is simply looking to make a recommendation on the project and the current proposals are “in no way binding.” The airport would also need a sponsor, Orcutt said, from a local county, city or port. Currently, Orcutt said, none of those entities are stepping forward for the project.
If an agency sponsors a site plan, “it’s years before they could do anything,” Orcutt said. “It’s decades out.”
This shortcoming, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said, shows how the process has been botched from the initial planning phases.
“(If) you don’t get the initial stage right, there’s hundreds of ways you can stop this project,” Braun said. “If you really believe we need another airport — full-size airport — in our state, you’ve gotta get that right, up front. And we didn’t. We need to start over.”
With the South Thurston County site spanning a 6-mile diameter, Wilcox also noted the inevitability of running into environmental features that prompt development restrictions, such as pocket gophers or wetlands.
For landowners in the area with dashed dreams for their property due to the same restrictions, Wilcox said, the proposal of a large airport is frustrating. But, as Orcutt added, these issues also decrease the likelihood of the project moving forward.
“I would say it would be very, very difficult. One, to acquire all the land required to do an airport, and then, to go through all the environmental regulations and everything else,” Orcutt said.
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