Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Corridor 3-Fer, Part 2

From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Pullman, Whitman County look to align zoning codes near airport

Pullman and Whitman County planning officials are working to create consistent rules for what's allowed on land surrounding the area's commercial airport.

Pullman Planning Director Pete Dickinson said the two entities are working to align county and city zoning codes as they pertain to land use and height restrictions around the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport - restrictions that are intended to ensure safety for planes during takeoff and landing.

The airport was under the county's control until it was annexed into Pullman in the 1980s.

"Our goal is to have a seamless operation between the city and the county when it comes to airport use regulations," Dickinson said. "We need to be on the same page. That's our goal."

Airport Manager Robb Parish said the Federal Aviation Administration requires counties and municipalities to make "appropriate land-use decisions" regarding areas and projects that may impact the airport.

"It is all in the control of Whitman County and Pullman," he said. "I think it really starts with everyone agreeing to protect the airport, then making decisions that implement that."

Whitman County Planner Mark Bordsen said the discussion is driven by the Washington State Department of Transportation's aviation division, which has encouraged municipalities to update zoning codes around airport properties.

He said in addition to discrepancies with Pullman, the county's "archaic" code is in need of an update.

"As best I can tell, it's probably something the feds told the state to tell the county to adopt," he said. "It's a very poorly worded chapter in our zoning code."

Dickinson said the city's interest in the issue stems from the county's allowance of more development in unincorporated areas. City zoning code restricts homes, hospitals, churches and child-care centers - or other places where many people may congregate - from within one mile east or west of the airport runway due to potential noise concerns.

Dickinson said the idea is to restrict the uses entirely so area residents or business owners would not be able to rally together to challenge the airport noise.

"There's a certain expectation that has been created in the county's unincorporated area right now that if you wish to develop your property near the airport, you can," Dickinson said. "But when you allow for residences near the airport, they are going to be bothered by airport noise. You get enough residences, churches, or child-cares together ... it becomes a battle, which we don't want to engage in."

Bordsen has a different opinion. He said Pullman and Washington State University allow for structures to be built closer to the airport than the county would like.

Bordsen also disagrees with some aspects of the city's permitted height requirements in the area. He said the county was given the thumbs up by the FAA to allow structures to be constructed behind natural hills that themselves are in violation of height restrictions.

"The FAA doesn't care, because if the airplane is going to hit something, it's going to hit the highest object," he said.

Dickinson said FAA rules often are left to interpretation, noting the Palouse's topography can pose an issue to the FAA's general restriction on the height of objects, landscaping and structures within a roughly 14,000-foot radius of the airport runway.

Parish said he is grateful the county notifies him when construction applications are submitted for areas near the airport. He reviews them and replies to the county with objections or concerns.

For instance, Parish objected when a cell tower was proposed within a mile of the airport and directly under a flight path. The land use is being investigated by the FAA.

"We really try to be reasonable. I don't want to object to a development if it's reasonable and we think it will be compatible. Frankly, we are eager to see the area develop," he said.

Parish said he sympathizes with the city and county as they try to reach a compromise, and understands the county may be facing pressure to allow rural residents to develop their property while at the same time trying to maintain safe operation of the airport.

"They're trying to get a better understanding of what really works around the airport and what doesn't," he said. "Everybody's trying their best to work through these issues."

Bordsen said he hopes the city and county will be able to find a solution that allows for airport safety and compatible development.

"I'm hoping it's going to be easy, but I don't know," he said. "It's going to be a tough issue."

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