Islanders work to address airplane noise over Vashon and Maury

Several Islanders, contending commercial air traffic noise has gotten worse in recent years, are pushing regional authorities to place a noise monitor on Vashon so that they can prove the problem is on the rise.

Residents recently formed a committee to address the issue. They also convinced two top officials from the Port of Seattle, which oversees the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to visit a recent meeting of the Island’s community council to discuss the issue.

“It’s louder; it’s more,” said Hilary Emmer, a Vashon-Maury Island Community Council executive board member who has attended several meetings of the ad-hoc Island committee on airplane noise. “More and more people from different parts of the Island who don’t know each other are saying the same thing, so there has to be something to it.”

But those who are bothered by the noise have an uphill battle. Officials at the Port of Seattle say nothing has changed — neither the flight patterns nor the altitude planes fly at — that would affect plane-related decibel levels on Vashon and Maury.

Some residents say they believe the noise has gotten worse because of the third runway, which began operating in November 2008 and which they believe has pushed arriving flights further west, closer to Vashon.

Airport officials say the third runway hasn’t changed flight paths.

“The flights that are coming over the top of Vashon, those flights haven’t changed because of the third runway,” said Perry Cooper, a Port of Seattle spokesman. “The planes are still making the same tracks they were over the Puget Sound.”

Stan Shepherd, who manages the Port of Seattle’s Airport Noise Program and who visited Vashon’s community council meeting last month, said he has analyzed years’ worth of data about flight patterns over Vashon in response to Islanders’ concerns. He can find nothing that would support Islanders’ contention that the situation is worse, he said.

“We don’t have any flight track changes,” Shepherd said. “Nothing has changed.”

Asked how it is that Islanders are hearing more airplane noise, Shepherd suggested it had to do with more attention being paid to the issue because SeaTac’s third runway had been in the news frequently in 2008 and 2009.

While planes fly over Vashon regularly, sometimes several within an hour, the altitudes and speeds of the planes are such that noise should not be bothersome to neighborhoods below them, officials said.

While departing planes rarely fly over the Island, arrivals do make their way over Vashon, particularly when wind is coming from the north.

Planes arriving at SeaTac Airport sometimes travel over Vashon and Maury, beginning at the southern tip of Maury, passing over Maury and the Burton Peninsula, then heading north up the center of Vashon Island.

Aircraft must land and take off into the wind, said Mary Gin Kennedy, the Port of Seattle’s director of commission services, in an e-mail to concerned Islanders.

When the wind is coming from the north, planes travel north into the wind over Vashon and Maury, then turn around to arrive from the north at one of SeaTac’s runways.

It is during these days that the noise is the most noticeable — sometimes rattling windows and occasionally awakening Islanders from sleep, Emmer said.

“They are definitely flying lower than they used to,” said Islander Eliza Hitchcock, who has been involved in the effort to address airplane noise on the Island. “You can see the bellies of the planes much better than you used to. ... They’re noisier than they were. They need to be higher and more dispersed.”

Hitchcock, who lives a mile east of Vashon town on the water, worked more than 20 years ago to have commercial flight paths altered to reduce the plane noise heard by Vashon and Maury residents.

“Part of me is saying I’ll go ahead with my life; I don’t want to concentrate on every plane, but it’s enough to be intrusive,” she said.

She and other Islanders hope Vashon residents will call the Port of Seattle’s noise hotline to report bothersome plane noise.

“If enough people are willing to do that, it will draw attention” to Vashon’s situation, Hitchcock said.

The issue of airplane noise on Vashon and Maury is nothing new, said Islander Ina Whitlock. Whitlock’s husband John worked with Hitchcock on reducing plane noise.

“Eliza and my husband worked with the Port Authority, had meetings with various neighborhood groups, and they were able to help. They got noise monitors put here on the Island” and eventually had flight paths altered, Whitlock said.

Islanders have requested that a noise monitor be placed somewhere on Vashon or Maury so data can be gathered on the level and frequency of overflight noise.

And while it’s likely that a temporary noise monitor will be placed somewhere on the Island later this year, port officials haven’t yet decided for sure, Cooper said.

The Port of Seattle is conducting a study on noise caused by airplanes throughout the Puget Sound, and a monitor could be placed on the Island for a few weeks as part of that study.

But noise monitors are costly, and there are only 25 of them in the region, said Shepherd, who manages the Port of Seattle’s Airport Noise Program.

He, too, said that flight paths and noise levels over Vashon should be no different today than they have been for years.

“We’ve been hearing the same concerns we’ve heard for years — they hear aircraft noise,” Shepherd said. “The Vashon area is much quieter than the Seattle area, so they hear the airplanes a little more over there. ... The flight tracks, when we’ve looked at them — even recently — we just don’t see anything unusual with them. They’re at the same place and same altitude.”

Islanders, however, say they’re going to continue to push the issue.

“I haven’t been calling the hotline as much as I should, but I am going to start again,” said Hitchcock. “When you look at all the other communities that are affected, and they have noise monitors, we are as affected as any of those other communities. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have monitors.”

Islanders who hear airplane noise may call the Port of Seattle’s noise hotline at 787-5393. Or, they can get involved in the Island’s committee on airplane noise, which meets the first and third Wednesdays of the month. Upcoming meetings are at 7 p.m. today, June 2, June 16 and July 7 and 21, at the Vashon Chamber of Commerce office, at 17205 Vashon Hwy. S.W.

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