Paine Field commercial flights met with opposition at hearing

EVERETT — People who oppose commercial passenger flights at Paine Field turned out in force Tuesday at the Snohomish County Council’s first public discussion of a lease proposal that could make their fear a reality.

If approved by county leaders, an option to lease would give New York-based Propeller Airports three years to design a two-gate passenger terminal and perform environmental studies. After that, Propeller could sign a 30-year lease, with two optional 10-year extensions. The company would pay for building and operating the facility.

“This is an important decision that will affect us all for years,” said Victor Coupez, vice president of the Mukilteo-based opposition group Save Our Communities. “The taxpayers and voters deserve transparency and good governance. I urge you to perform due diligence and to find out just who you’re thinking about doing business with. There is no legal pressure to push this through. Slow down.”

County Executive John Lovick’s office forwarded the proposed option to lease to the County Council on Friday with a recommendation for approval. Federal Aviation Administration rules require the county to negotiate in good faith or risk losing millions of dollars in grants the airport relies on to keep running.

The County Council is scheduled to discuss the lease option again at its 10:30 a.m. meeting March 2. A vote also could take place then.

Opponents who spoke to the council Tuesday said that’s too soon. They included Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson.

They’re asking for assurances that taxpayers won’t be held accountable if anything goes wrong with the project.

They asked the County Council to make sure the public recoups all costs for the facility, keeping in mind that the number of daily flights could eventually grow from the five envisioned now. The two-gate terminal under discussion could accommodate up to 23 flights per day.

Paine Field today handles about 300 flights a day. Aircraft range in size from small single-engine airplanes to newly manufactured or refurbished jetliners.

“Failing to absolutely ensure that any lessee pays all direct and indirect costs is by definition a subsidy,” said Mike Moore, the Save Our Communities president. “Any ground lease must account for mitigating not only the initial impacts, but increasing impacts for up to 50 years. I don’t see that protection in the proposed lease.”

Airport officials and a county attorney said Tuesday they have built safeguards into the agreement to cover foreseeable costs and what would happen should the project fail.

Opponents also called attention to Propeller’s limited track record.

Founded in 2008, the company has been trying to develop an alternative to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, one of the busiest in the world.

Propeller first approached Snohomish County in June. Serious negotiations began in October.

The proposed Paine Field lease involves land between the airport’s administrative offices and control tower. The area covers about 466,000 square feet.

Boeing has been leasing the space to park 747s awaiting delivery.

“That was always seen as a temporary arrangement,” airport director Arif Ghouse said. “Boeing has no desire, that they’ve expressed to us, that they want to have a long-term lease on that land.”

Propeller’s lease option, if approved, would cost the company $3,575 per month. That’s one-tenth of the $35,755 monthly lease if the deal advances. The county also would require a one-time traffic-impact fee of $333,000.

Under the terms, the county would receive 2.5 percent of gross revenue during the first four years of terminal operation in addition to the monthly lease. The amount would double to 5 percent for the remainder of the lease.

A terminal building could be up to 30,000 square feet. A previous county study estimated construction costs at $10 million. When council members asked if Propeller could, in theory, plop down a double-wide trailer, Ghouse said the company would have to construct a “world-class building.”

“We have some concerns about the design quality and the longevity of the building,” Councilman Terry Ryan said.

Ryan represents a potential tie-breaker in a future vote on Paine Field commercial passenger flights. The other four members are split for and against.

The city of Mukilteo and Save Our Communities have taken the Federal Aviation Administration to federal court over the issue, demanding further environmental impact studies. The case was stayed last year but would be reactivated when a viable terminal proposal moves forward.

On the other side of the issue are Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and many of the region’s business leaders, who have talked up the economic benefit that regularly scheduled passenger flights could bring.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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