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Published: Saturday, April 16, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

How noise from passenger flights might affect Paine Field's neighbors

  • Passengers board a jet operated by Allegiant Airlines at the Bellingham International Airport in May 2008. Allegiant has proposed operating passenger ...

    Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file

    Passengers board a jet operated by Allegiant Airlines at the Bellingham International Airport in May 2008. Allegiant has proposed operating passenger flights to and from Paine Field; its plan would be to start service with four flights per week the first year, increasing to 20 in five years. Horizon Air is also interested in passenger flights at Paine Field.

EVERETT -- It's a decision that could change Snohomish County forever. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue its ruling as soon as next month on whether commercial airlines can fly out of and into Paine Field. If the county-owned airport does become an alternative to Sea-Tac International, Horizon and Allegiant Air -- two airlines pushing for approval -- could shuttle thousands of people in and out of the area every year. That means jobs in these troubled times. It also means more traffic, air pollution and, no doubt, the lowering of some property values. And thousands of people who live in neighborhoods around the airport will face one issue day in and night out: noise. Arrivals and departures of thousands of additional jets each year means those neighborhoods will grow louder. This is one of the key issues being examined by the FAA. Since the coming of the jet age, the federal government has regulated noise around airports. While the FAA's ruling has been more than a year in the making, the facts are relatively clear when it comes to noise. Two studies by the same firm in the past nine years suggest that air traffic will grow, but noise at the airport won't reach levels the federal government considers harmful enough to force action. The studies were paid for by the federal and county governments, not the airlines. But that's only part of the story. While the sound won't reach the federal threshold, thousands of people in Mukilteo and Lynnwood and the surrounding communities will hear disturbances constant enough and loud enough that it can jar them awake, drown out conversations and just plain irritate them. Here's a look at what could happen with noise at Paine Field. How loud is Paine Field now? Make no mistake about it: Some of the jets that already fly out of Paine Field are louder than anything that Horizon or Allegiant will bring. The noisiest jets at the airport are the EA-6B Prowler, a Navy jet that makes infrequent visits, and the Dreamlifter cargo freighter, which in 2010 averaged about 25 landings and takeoffs per month. The Prowler produces about 100 to 115 decibels for someone standing 1,000 feet away on takeoff, based on information from Paine Field and Naval Air Station Whidbey. The Dreamlifter has reached between 94 and 103 decibels in spot readings with noise monitors at the south end of Paine Field. Individual flights, however, matter less than the overall effect. The benchmark used by the federal government for aircraft noise is 65 decibels averaged out over 24 hours -- referred to as "dnl" (day-night level), with nighttime noise weighted 10 decibels extra because of its potential effect on sleep. The 65-decibel level is roughly equivalent to listening to a slightly louder-than-average conversation. The federal government considers a 65-decibel day-night level the threshold for whether aircraft noise has a negative effect on airport neighbors. It's the point at which, for example, a home would be eligible for installation of noise insulation at government expense. Paine Field enjoys 1,300 acres of property, meaning there's a lot of space between its runways and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. As of 2008, the 65-decible day-night level at Paine Field did not stray off airport property, except for a small area with no homes at the north end of the main runway and a second small area of Mukilteo Speedway to the southwest. Still, some experts say noise can affect health at 55 decibels or even lower. The 55-decibel level is roughly equivalent to the hum of an intersection in downtown Everett. In 2002, the most recent information available, the 55-decibel day-night level extends slightly into some neighborhoods in Mukilteo and north of Lynnwood, encompassing about 8,420 residents. How noisy would the passenger flights be? Allegiant Air uses MD-80 class jets, which reach anywhere from 74 to 105 decibels on takeoff, according to different sources. Horizon uses smaller Bombardier Q-400 jets, which produce less than 80 decibels at a distance of 1,000 feet on takeoff, said Jen Boyer, a spokeswoman for Horizon. Again, how loud the planes are matters less to the federal government than the cumulative noise. If Paine Field becomes certified for commercial air service, the airport will not be allowed to restrict the number of flights in the future, nor will it be permitted to impose restrictions such as mandatory nighttime flight curfews. Right now, Paine Field does have a lengthy set of voluntary guidelines for pilots and air traffic controllers to try to minimize noise. These include voluntary restrictions on nighttime flights from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. The airport also discourages training flights and "touch-and-go" flights, in which a pilot will tap the runway and immediately take off again. Pilots are strongly encouraged to make straight takeoffs and approaches along established flight paths. At the north end, this takes planes over uninhabited Japanese Gulch and Possession Sound; at the populous south end it takes planes over Lynnwood. So how many flights could there be? Several scenarios have been put forward about what could happen if passenger service is allowed at Paine Field. The airlines' plans call for the lowest number of flights of any projection. Allegiant Air, of Las Vegas, proposes to start service with four flights per week the first year, increasing to 20 in five years. Seattle's Horizon Air proposes to start with 12 flights a day and increase to 20 by the fifth year, or 140 per week. If the plans become reality and service were to begin next year, Paine Field by 2016 would have 8,340 passenger flights -- arrivals and departures -- per year for the two airlines combined. There were 110,270 flights last year at Paine Field, the vast majority being small private planes. A 2009 environmental study done for the airlines' proposals does not project the 65-decible day-night level to reach into neighborhoods by 2016, even with the new commercial flights. The study did not address the 55-decible day-night level, nor scenarios involving more flights. The airport also commissioned a master plan in 2002 that made four projections for possible passenger flights, the most recent long-term plan done for Paine Field. The lowest-level forecast envisions roughly 11,000 flights and 150,000 passengers per year by 2021. Under this scenario, the study says the 65-decible day-night level still would not extend into neighborhoods. And the 55-decible day-night decibel area would affect estimated 8,780 residents, a few hundred more than today. The high end presumes about 43,000 flights and 1.5 million passengers per year by 2021. Under that scenario, the federally regulated 65-decibel day-night level still does not move into neighborhoods. The 55-decibel day-night level line, however, would grow significantly, reaching past 164th Street SW in the Lynnwood area and into some neighborhoods west of the Mukilteo Speedway, affecting about 18,640 residents. Both the 2009 study and the 2002 master plan were done by the Barnard Dunkelberg Co., an aviation planning firm with offices in Tulsa, Okla., and Denver, Colo. The federal government paid for 95 percent of the cost of the master plan, the airport the other 5 percent. The FAA paid the entire cost of the 2009 study. With no legal limits on flights, opponents of commercial air service say there's nothing stopping Paine Field from becoming as busy as San Diego International -- perhaps the largest commercial airport in the nation with only one runway for jet aircraft. Like San Diego, Paine Field's main runway can handle 747s. Paine Field also has plentiful land for a terminal, roads and parking. San Diego International handled nearly 150,000 commercial flights and nearly 17 million passengers in 2010. There, the 65-decibel day-night level extends well into surrounding neighborhoods. No studies or projections by experts have envisioned Paine Field growing that large. What are the health effects of noise? Loud, continuous noise has contributed to high blood pressure, hearing loss and even heart attacks, said Rick Neitzel, a research scientist in the University of Washington's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. These effects have been associated with daily averages of more than 70 decibels, and with daily eight-hour shifts for people working in loud environments, Neitzel said. Seventy decibels averaged out is roughly equivalent to close-up busy traffic. A single jet takeoff, depending on the type of plane and distance away, can reach over 100 decibels. Usually only the larger airports consistently average more than 70 decibels, and only close by. Still, noise levels common in neighborhoods around many airports -- including even the mild expansion scenarios for Paine Field -- could be enough to cause problems, Neitzel said. "People get annoyed at much lower levels, people get sleep disturbance at much lower levels" -- in the 50- to 55-decibel range, he said. Loss of sleep has been linked to cardiovascular disease, Neitzel said. Also, he said many experts link annoyance to stress-related health problems, though evidence is spotty. "You're kind of on the cutting edge of science," he said. Most studies of the effects of aircraft noise on health, learning or stress have been undertaken near large airports. Most show some type of effect on health, on children and learning or both, with varying results. How does noise affect property values? Studies on this subject are similar to those involving aircraft noise and health -- they tend to be undertaken near large airports and they tend to conclude that noise does reduce property values. In 1994, a study on airports' effects on property values was done for the FAA. The study found that home values near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Los Angeles International and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York all consistently suffered because of aircraft noise. Near Los Angeles International, the study found an 18.6 percent drop, or more than 1.3 percent per decibel, in home values from the quieter to the noisier of two otherwise comparable neighborhoods. A 1997 study funded by the Washington state Legislature estimated that a planned third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport would reduce the value of otherwise similar homes close to the airport by 10.1 percent compared to other locations. The third runway was completed in 2008. Also, many studies conclude that the higher the price of the home, the greater the effect on property values. Randall Bell, a national expert on the effect of environmental factors on real estate economics, wrote an article on airport noise and property values for The Appraisal Journal in 2001. "The reduction in value of a high-priced home will be approximately 2.5 times that of a moderately priced home," Bell wrote. This means that in the case of Paine Field, more noise could have a greater effect on the generally more affluent homeowners in Mukilteo than, for example, people who own homes in areas north of Lynnwood. What are the remedies for noise? Paine Field would likely have to have more flights than under any of the 2002 master plan scenarios, and certainly more than under the Allegiant-Horizon proposal, for federal noise insulation or buyouts to come into play. Under none of these hypothetical situations does the 65-decibel day-night line move into neighborhoods. If Paine Field were to grow as large as San Diego, as some suggest, that would change. This is not to say that mid-sized airports don't have to spend money on noise abatement. T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., about 30 miles from Boston, has only slightly more annual passenger flights than the high-end Paine Field Master Plan scenario -- about 54,000 in 2010, compared to 43,000 -- and since 1998 spent more than $87 million buying out homes in the noisiest neighborhoods, according to officials there. As of 2006, the T.F. Green airport generated nearly $2 billion in annual economic activity for the surrounding area, according to one study. Orlando Sanford Airport, the secondary airport for the Orlando, Fla., area, handles roughly the same number of passengers as the high-end count predicted under the Paine Field master plan. The airport, roughly 40 miles from Orlando, handled about 1.3 million passengers in 2010, airport president Larry Dale said. The master plan for Paine Field predicted as many as 1.5 million passengers by 2021. Orlando-Sanford has spent $10 million over the years buying homes in 65-decibel day-night areas, Dale said. The airport creates about $2.5 billion a year in economic activity, according to a study by the Florida Department of Transportation. Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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