Local Officials Push Back on Unpopular Proposal for a New Airport in Thurston County


Thurston County officials said they oppose a state proposal to create a new two-runway airport at a rural site southeast of Olympia.

The potential airport would be within a circular area that spans six miles in diameter northeast of Tenino. A state commission tasked with identifying a site for a new airport decided to keep the so-called "Thurston County Central" site on a short list of options on Sept. 23, prompting renewed alarm by county officials.

County Commissioner Carolina Mejia said the board she chairs has consistently pushed back against any plans to build a new airport in Thurston County.

"The board, usually, they don't agree on everything, but this is definitely something that there's unanimous (opposition) for," Mejia said. "I think we're just all very understanding of the potential impacts."

The state legislature tasked the Commercial Aviation Coordination Commission in 2019 with identifying a suitable location for a new airport to be constructed by 2040. This airport would help meet demand as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reaches its capacity.

The commission only recently narrowed its list of options to three "greenfield" or undeveloped sites, two in Pierce County and one in Thurston County.

County Manager Ramiro Chavez said he sent an email to the chair of the state commission July 2020, saying the board refused to sponsor any such development in Thurston County.

Despite this early contact, the state commission continued to consider sites in Thurston County. In response, Chavez said the board sent formal letters to the commission reaffirming its opposition in January and August.

The county has not received a response to its most recent letter, he said.

Mejia and Chavez said they understand the state commission has its mandate, but the county also has an obligation to protect its residents' interests.

"Having that type of a footprint in south county, regardless though of what that is, is absolutely going to change the nature of Thurston County forever," Chavez said.

In addition to people, Chavez said an airport could detrimentally impact the environment and affect sensitive species, such as the threatened Mazama pocket gopher.

To further affirm its position, Mejia said the county plans to draft another letter in collaboration with local cities. This letter would be sent to the state commission and local state representatives.

Public Feedback

Constituent feedback toward the proposal has been largely negative, Mejia said. Some have cited pollution and noise concerns while others have noted a general lack of infrastructure in the area, she said.

"I think we're right in line with all of those concerns too," Mejia said. "I really haven't gotten comments from people that say they're in support of it, not to say that they're not in Thurston County, but what we've received so far has been very staunch opposition."

About 57% of 5,687 respondents to a state commission open house on the topic said they opposed the Thurston County Central site. Around 22% supported the site and 21% supported it as long as environmental impacts could be mitigated.

The open house ran from Aug. 15 to Sept. 11 and allowed people to comment on nine other sites. In every case, a majority of respondents opposed the sites.

Another option under consideration would be expanding an already established airfield. As of Sept. 23, the state commission was still exploring adding capacity at Paine Field in Snohomish County.

About 58% of respondents to the open house supported improving Paine Field to accommodate commercial passenger demand. Around 54% supported improving it to meet air cargo needs as well.

State Legislators Weigh In

In a statement, State Senate Republican Leader John Braun said he has received few public comments on the proposed airport until recently, but most of the feedback has been from those opposed.

Braun represents District 20, which extends into south Thurston County. A large portion of the proposed Thurston County Central site would affect his constituents.

When asked whether he supported a site in Thurston County, Braun acknowledged the airport would mean a "permanent end" to most of what makes rural life appealing.

"Ultimately it's not about how I feel, it's about how the people in that part of Thurston County feel," Braun said.

Braun said he voted on the legislation to create the commission exploring the potential sites. While he didn't agree with ruling out sites east of the Cascades, he said a "decision has to be made somehow."

District 20 residents have expressed concerns to state Rep. Ed Orcutt. Preserving the rural character of the area has been a key worry, he said.

"The primary concern is in regard to the impact an airport being added or expanded at that site would have on the rural nature of the areas — both from an environmental aspect as well as from a quality of rural life standpoint," Orcutt said.

In addition to noise and traffic complaints, Orcutt said some have shared concerns about how a major airport could impact sensitive wetlands, waterways and wildlife.

What's Next

The state commission must narrow the options and make a final recommendation to the state legislature before a June deadline.

"Whatever recommendation the CACC delivers to the legislature, it will be just that — a recommendation," Orcutt said. "There are many, many steps any recommendation would need to go through prior to final approval and permitting for construction of an airport."

Like Braun, Orcutt said he plans to listen to his constituents if the proposed site in Thurston County remains under consideration in the months ahead.