Citizen Group Opposing Possible Thurston County Airport Draws Large Crowd


More than 200 people gathered Monday night to hear local activists spell out why they staunchly oppose a possible new airport in Thurston County.

"Stop the Thurston Airport," a citizen advocacy group, hosted the evening event at Grace Community Covenant Church on Wiggins Road. Attendees crowded the meeting room, forcing many to stand along the walls.

Dawn Sonntag, chief organizer of the group, led the meeting and fielded questions from local residents, some of whom only recently learned about the state Commercial Aviation Coordination Commission's consideration of a central Thurston County site for a future international airport.

Sonntag called on those in attendance to join their growing movement.

"We have ecologists, we have biologists, we have graphic artists, we have attorneys working under the table and we have just so many volunteers who have distributed fliers and done campaigns on street corners," Sonntag said. "We have a lot of work to do."

"Thurston County Central," the proposed airport site, spans an area six miles in diameter southeast of Olympia. The circular area includes parts of Pattison Lake to the north, and Rainier Road Southeast runs through it diagonally.

The Commercial Aviation Coordination Commission included the Thurston County site in a shortlist of sites that it submitted to the state Legislature on Oct. 15. One recommendation for expanding aviation capacity must be selected by June 15, 2023.

Sonntag, who lives in the Sunwood Lakes community south of Yelm Highway off Spurgeon Creek Road, started her group after she first heard about the airport selection process in late September, she previously told The Olympian. Since then, she has hosted community gatherings that have drawn increasingly larger crowds.

On Monday, she outlined her group's goal, saying they hoped to see the CACC disbanded, and the selection process canceled. She also vowed her group would support communities in Pierce County where two other sites are being considered.

"We will be very happy if our site is not chosen," Sonntag said. "But if one of the Pierce sites is chosen, we will rally behind them and we will fight to stop the airport in that area as well."

Sonntag was joined by two other group members who described potential impacts on local property and the environment. All of them cast the proposal as an existential threat that could uproot communities, pollute the environment and cost property owners dearly.

Environmental effects

Cindy Schexnider, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, said environmental impacts would be felt miles beyond the circular area the CACC identified.

While pointing to an aerial photo, she said an airport on that site would affect wetlands, watersheds, waterways, prairies and legacy forests that serve as fish and wildlife habitat.

"Imagine this aerial photo 50 years from now, if there is a mega airport and urban sprawl here," Schexnider said. "We need to really think about what we want the future of Thurston County and Western Washington to look and be like."

Certain endangered species could be at risk, including the Mazama pocket gopher, Schexnider said. When considering the proposal, she called on the public to be doubtful of promises to mitigate habitat loss and use futuristic technology.

"Like us, if their home is not directly destroyed, air, water and noise pollution will compromise their livelihood," Schexnider said. "This proposal strongly contradicts all the rhetoric we hear from the state about being progressive on climate change and greenhouse gas."

For its part, the CACC has pitched building an "Airport of the Future" that can mitigate negative impacts and meet commercial needs, according to commission documents.

Such an airport could include improved energy efficiency, renewable energy use, electric transportation and newer aircraft propulsion technology to replace current fuels.

Property concerns

Robbi Currey, a real estate appraiser who lives in Sunwood Lakes, said property owners are at risk of losing their homes and businesses if an airport and adjacent infrastructure are built.

"Homeowners will be offered what CACC claims is fair market value for their home," Currey said. "However, as soon as the airport project is announced, the market value of our homes will drop significantly."

She warned of the consequences of eminent domain, especially given current market conditions. She predicted many residents would not be able to purchase nearby homes with what they would be offered.

"With less money in our pockets from the seizure of our homes, higher interest rates, and housing shortages, many of our residents will not be able to purchase homes of equal value in this county," Currey said.

"They will be forced to move outside of their city, county or even outside of the state."

Many businesses also could experience difficulty relocating. She said some are dependent on their land, and they would not be compensated for lost business interests.

"So not only will they lose their home, but they will also lose their livelihood," Currey said.

Property owners beyond the proposed site also could see impacts. She predicted industrial commercial sprawl and roadway projects would extend into Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and rural areas.

The CACC has suggested a new airport could be completed by around 2040, but Currey said construction impacts could come much sooner. She said residents may have to live with ongoing construction projects for decades.

CACC documents indicate they are considering rural airport sites due to their low population density. Given the size of the project, the CACC says fewer people would be displaced if they select a rural site rather than an urban one.

Despite locals' concerns, the CACC has pressed onward with its state mandate. The Washington state Department of Transportation expects expansions at Sea-Tac Airport and Paine Field will be insufficient to meet demand, both commercial and passenger, by 2050.

If the state does not act, WSDOT predicts the public will see more overcrowding at Sea-Tac, pricier air travel tickets, delayed air cargo, lost economic activity and more.

Next steps

The CACC will study the Thurston County site as well as two sites in Pierce County. The commission also may choose to recommend adding capacity to Paine Field in Snohomish County by the June 15 deadline.

In the meantime, Sonntag said she will continue to organize opposition to keep her group's momentum going. She was pleased by the turnout at Monday's meeting.

"I'm very guardedly optimistic that we'll be able to reach even more people after tonight because I think the word is going to really spread," she said.

Sonntag said she expects to hold another large community meeting in mid-January.