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Guest Editorial

Airport critical to Sunnyside's future

I read the recent guest editorial written by the chairman of the Sunnyside Planning Commission, Mr. Brent Cleghorn, and believe it is important to provide some factual data on the airport. As chairman of the planning commission and given that the commission has worked on the most current version of the Airport Master Plan and Airport Layout Plan, one would expect him to have a good understanding of the history of the airport and the rules under which it is operated.

By this I am suggesting that one should understand that when the airport was first built and first accepted Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funds, it also accepted all the rules of the FAA to bear on the airport. This means that the airspace around the airport, the land use and height restrictions were placed on the airport at that time, approximately the 1950-60 era, and remain active forever.

The Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) Aviation and FAA have a very easy to read manual that addresses land use compatibility and how that interacts with the conical shape of the airspace above airports. When an airport operates under FAA regulations it is required to have a current and accepted Master Plan and a Layout Plan. Sunnyside Municipal Airport Master Plan 1990-2010, under which the Sunnyside airport is currently operating, was completed in July 1991. The FAA Part 77 Surfaces (airport layout mapping/conical airspace above the airport) was completed March 6, 1992 and the overall size, shape and rules have not changed. These documents were properly approved and all required public hearings prior to adoption were held.

The WSDOT Aviation manual was used at the time the current and approved Sunnyside Municipal Airport Master Plan 1990-2010 was written. Since these plans are 20-year plans, it is time for it to be updated, which is what has been in the works for a year or so.

This Master Plan and the manual were also used by Yakima County in 1995 to complete their Comprehensive Plan for the county as required by Growth Management laws. This included land use zoning and ordinances around Sunnyside's airport, as well as other parts of the county. The Sunnyside Municipal Airport Layout Plan Update that currently is in the approval process is following these same rules. This plan was not completed by the planning commission. It was contracted to professional airport consultant, Century West Engineering Corporation. The Sunnyside Airport is part of the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). As such, it is recognized by the FAA as being vital to serving the public needs of air transportation. "The FAA requires all NPIAS airports to periodically update their plans to maintain effective long-term planning." (Sunnyside Municipal Airport Layout Plan, pages 1-2).

You may be asking yourself, what has changed or is being proposed that is causing all this uproar? The only change is the proposal to lengthen the runway from 3,400 feet to 4,000 feet.

This does two things...

1) it allows for the next class of aircraft above the single and twin engine private planes that can currently land and take off; and additionally, and most importantly, it allows the newest emergency evacuation planes (Life Flights corporate jet) used and needed to airlift critically injured or ill people from Sunnyside Community Hospital to places like Harborview; and

2) it extends the safety zones on the sides of the runway from 400 feet to 1,000 feet, which is the small area parallel to the sides of the tarmac and within the overall size of the conical airspace.

Mr. Cleghorn makes it sound like the conical size is new. It is not. It has been in place since at least 1990 and most likely since the inception of the airport, approximately 1950-1960.

In 1995, when Yakima County did its Comprehensive Plan under the then new Growth Management rules (RCW 36.70A, with other sections RCW 36.0.547, 36.70A.510, 35A.63.270 and 35.60.250 addresses zoning around General Aviation Airports), the land surrounding the airport was given a "future use zoning" (in most cases industrial), so this zoning is not new either.

Current uses in effect at the time this plan was adopted may continue until the use changes. Under the above referenced RCW's, all cities and counties are required to protect public use airports from the siting of incompatible development through its comprehensive plan and development regulations. This is exactly what the City of Sunnyside is required to do under the RCW's and continues to do as the community grows.

You may also be wondering where the extension will occur and on what land. The Port owns the land to the east of the runway and that will be used to lengthen the runway. The city will need to apply to WSDOT/FAA for funds to do the actual construction of the extra 600 feet of runway. This money, like the funds currently being used to improve the taxiway, are funds that can only be used by small general aviation airports (like Sunnyside) and comes from a portion of the fuel tax on the general aviation fuel (small planes paying for small airports), not from the city's general fund.

This is a small municipal airport and that will not change. What is changing in the aviation world is how corporate people fly. There is a large surge in sharing small jets (similar to the timeshare practice in vacationing) for corporate travel between multiple companies. This type of sharing allows small to medium size companies to move their executives and others from meeting to meeting in a timely manner and avoid the hassle of commercial airports.

An example of this at work...the Port recently completed a large construction project where the general contractor's home office was on the west side of Washington. This contractor flew his key project people into Sunnyside every Monday morning for the work week and picked them up on Thursday evening and hired locally for the regular crew. This arrangement could have been a deal breaker for the key personnel. This job lasted most of a year and the key project people did not want to be away from their families for that length of time. Without this airport and the ability to fly those key people in and out weekly, the company would not have bid on this very large construction project.

We have a number of small to large corporations in Sunnyside that fly their key people in periodically for meetings. It is more common than most know. As an example of how busy our airport really is, one need only to go to the WSDOT Aviation Division webpage for South Central Washington to see that "...there are 20 single aircraft based at the airport. The latest available data indicate that SS Municipal experiences 24,000 annual operations." Admittedly, some of these annual operations are pilots doing "touch and goes" and pilot training.

Also, it is important to remember that our Sunnyside Airport is owned by the City of Sunnyside, therefore it is a municipal airport and the city must, under the law, protect this public facility. It has accepted FAA funding over the years.

This funding brings FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules to bear on the airport. This alone rules out the possibility of homes with hangars (an airpark), as was suggested in Mr. Cleghorn's editorial. TSA is very specific about security and access to airports, including small General Aviation airports like Sunnyside's. This type of a development can only happen on a private airstrip, not one owned by a municipality and certainly not one operating under the rules of FAA and TSA.

Mr. Cleghorn and the planning commission have heard many times that this type of development is not allowable under the current and future security rules and the planning commission understands it. They have heard from Carter Timmerman, a representative of WSDOT Aviation/Division, that single family housing adjacent to airports is not a good fit and that WSDOT suggests a 1,000-foot safety area adjacent to the side of the runway is needed for a 4,000-foot runway. Their consultants have agreed. This is an industry standard and one that has proven itself time and again across the country.

The Port of Sunnyside's interest in this airport stems from our role in the community as an industrial and economic developer. As a rule, when we discuss with a company the possibility of locating or expanding to Sunnyside, quality of life, transportation, medical care and schools are some of the major talking points. Businesses are understandably concerned that where they locate their employees will have good schools, access to good medical care and quality of life.

Additionally, their transportation needs can be critical to their operation and more and more they are asking about the close proximity to an airport, not necessarily a commercial airport but one that they can fly in and out of with their smaller corporate jet.

Our General Aviation airport serves that purpose and as is stated in the July 2009 WSDOT Long-Term Air Transportation Study: "While GA activity sits often in the shadow of commercial activity, it plays an integral role in the state aviation system...GA transportation provides a wide range of essential services to communities across Washington State, including business transportation, emergency medical, search and rescue, firefighting, ag support, pilot training and recreational flying."

The airport is critical to Sunnyside's future. Please join us, the concerned citizens in Sunnyside, and encourage and support the city in protecting this valuable asset for our future.

- Amber Hansen is executive director of the Port of Sunnyside.

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