Many Toledo residents can breathe a sigh of relief this week after Lewis County officially asked the state to not consider the small town’s airport for major expansion.
The move comes after months of pushback from organized Toledo residents. In the state’s quest to build another Sea-Tac-sized airport in Western Washington — and after county commissioners submitted a letter of interest to be considered — Toledo’s airport landed a spot on a shortlist of six potential sites.
And although state and county officials insisted that the airport’s size and location effectively took it out of the running, Commissioner Gary Stamper, whose district includes Toledo, continued to shoulder criticism. Some residents demanded that the county rescind its support, citing fears that commercial aviation would ruin Toledo’s rural feel.
The county sent its letter this week to David Fleckenstein, chair of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission — the group leading the search for a new large airport site under the state’s Department of Transportation.
“As the owner of the SLC airport, Lewis County requests that the South Lewis County airport be removed from the analysis considering airports that could provide significant commercial service,” commissioners Stamper, Sean Swope and Lindsey Pollock wrote.
Commissioners cited the airport’s classification as “general aviation,” saying its master plan doesn’t include things like commercial or freight aviation.
The letter goes a step further — likely in an attempt to quell locals’ fears — stating that “Lewis County is not supportive, nor will we take steps, to expand the airport runway to accommodate either large commercial air service or air cargo operations.”
After reading the letter aloud during a meeting this week, Stamper said that message needs to be “clearly spelled out” for the public.
The letter also reflects what commissioners have told residents in the past — that the county still wants to be considered by the state for funds for smaller projects at the airport, such as increased hangar capacity.
“The strategy here is just to say that we want to be considered just for general aviation. So that would eliminate any cargo planes, 737s,” Swope told The Chronicle. “This would give us the ability to add more hangar space for people to park their plane there and then just to mitigate traffic in the area for smaller aviation.”
Earlier this month, when commissioners announced they would be drafting their letter, some members of Citizens for Responsible Aviation in Toledo — the group that has long been pushing against major expansion — rejoiced.
The news was an “answer to a lot of prayers and emails,” Joy Noble wrote on the group’s Facebook page.
But Swope also noted that constituents in his district — which includes Centralia and much of North Lewis County — have expressed interest in expanding the airport beyond general aviation.
“It’s a Catch-22, right? Because you have people in Toledo who it directly affects, and they don’t want it. But those it doesn’t direct affect, they see an opportunity for economic growth in the area. They see it as a good thing for Lewis County,” Swope said. “And I totally understand both sides.”
He went on to note that smaller expansions the county is now seeking could include things such as tourist-attracting helicopter rides over Mount Rainier. Increased hangar capacity, he said, could lure in businesses by giving “CEOs or upper management who want to fly in, that don’t necessarily live here” a place to park personal or company planes.