Community council moves island plane noise monitor forward

A representative of Puget Sound Energy dropped by at last week’s meeting to give a pandemic update.

More than 40 islanders tuned into The Vashon-Maury Island Community Council meeting on Monday night, voting on a motion to adopt the proposed location for a noise monitor that will gather data on overflight noise crossing Vashon’s skies on route to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The council also heard a presentation from a representative of Puget Sound Energy who discussed energy-saving programs for small businesses and residential customers, taking several questions from members of The Vashon Climate Action Group ranging from PSE’s plans for the Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant to generating renewable energy sources and PSE’s business with out-of-state energy companies.

For one of the first items of the night, the community council passed a motion on a proposed policy change affecting board elections. Islanders aged 16 years or older who are interested in running for a position on the board must file an application online by Oct. 20, at vmicc.org. Islander Jim Diers, who belongs to the nominating committee, noted that there are already six candidates running for the seven available board positions, though he stressed that currently, the field of candidates is narrow and excludes young people, members of Vashon’s Latino community or those with other diverse perspectives.

“You still have about a month to consider running. If you aren’t up for it, find somebody who is,’ Diers said. “We want to make sure this is a competitive election. And we really want to make sure that all parts of the island, all voices, are connected to the board.”

Next up, islander David Goebel, founder of the nonprofit Vashon Island Fair Skies and leader of the five-member aviation noise committee, reported on the work involved in confirming the location on the island where a noise monitor would be most successful in collecting data on overflight noise.

It’s no accident that in recent years, islanders have noticed an uptick in noise from planes, the Fair Skies committee members say.

Most of the traffic arriving at SeaTac comes from the south — flights catch the wind coming from that direction on approach in order to reduce their ground speed, cruising north of the airport before turning back to land on what is called a “downwind leg.” Up to 250 flights a day cross over Vashon on arrival to Sea-Tac on that trajectory, accounting for about 70% of the airport’s traffic. They follow a hyper-focused path from the sky to the runway implemented by a controversial Federal Aviation Administration program guiding air traffic called NextGen, a series of initiatives designed to upgrade old technology while increasing flight safety and efficiency at airports across the country. And that path is razor-focused over the island.

Vashon’s noise monitor will be added to the Port of Seattle’s system for measuring the sound of air traffic in communities bordering the airport. But for the aviation noise committee, selecting a location for the unit wasn’t easy. There’s only a shortlist of places on Vashon where a noise monitor would do the most good in proving noise from air traffic has gotten louder.

For the island, the committee unanimously designated a remote 1.3-acre area in Wingehaven Park as the best choice, making their decision based on important considerations, namely that the noise monitor be situated where it can collect the most data, in close proximity to the most number of overflights per day; that it be placed somewhere free of interference from background noise such as vehicles and ferries; that the monitor has a power source, wireless connectivity, and that it be placed on public property and secured against theft and vandalism, a requirement of the port, which is providing funds for the unit.

The site isn’t perfect — planes won’t fly directly over the noise monitor wherever it’s ultimately placed on the property — but it’s close enough, Goebel said.

“I’ve been scouting sites for the last four or five years on the island… and I think, to take advantage of capturing the impact of NextGen on Vashon, with the limitation of public property, this looks to be the best choice,” he said.

Commissioners of the Vashon Park District last took up a discussion of the placement of a noise monitor at Wingehaven — a park district property — in December and later approved the proposal. But getting the unit out to the island has been held up, Goebel said, in part due to the port wanting to defer to the newly-forming community council for a decision, and because of the ongoing pandemic.

One of the next steps will be for the group to head back to the port with options to choose from for a power source for the monitor, the best of which is probably solar, Goebel said.

The community council eventually passed a motion approving the aviation noise committee’s proposal.

The council next heard from PSE Outreach Manager Heather Pierce, who was invited to give an overview of how the utility provider is assisting residential and business customers during the pandemic.

“We want to make sure everybody’s power is staying on. And that it is not a concern that they have to be dealing with during this very troubling time,” she said.

Anyone who has been impacted by the pandemic may be eligible for the new Crisis Affected Customer Assistance Program. Pierce said that $7 million of assistance has been provided to PSE customers in Washington from the fund so far, with $3.6 million going to residents affected in the county. More information about the assistance program is available online at tinyurl.com/y6a5o5mw.

PSE has made other recent contributions closer to home. Pierce touted a new solar array installed at Matsuda Farm earlier this summer by the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust in partnership with PSE, which provided some funding for the project. In a promotional video produced by PSE, land trust executive director Tom Dean said the solar array — powerful enough to help power most of the facilities at the farm — is helping to pivot operations at the farm toward carbon neutrality.

For more information about PSE’s green initiatives including renewable energy programs for customers or old appliance recycling, visit tinyurl.com/y6mmjzb6 and pse.com/rebates/recycling.

The optimistic presentation took a turn when members of the Vashon Climate Action Group pressed Pierce on a number of issues surrounding climate change, including PSE’s continued operation of coal plants in Colstrip, Montana and the utility’s plans to sell its shares of Unit 4 of the Colstrip Power Plant rather than phase it out. (Two audio-only virtual public comment hearing sessions will be held at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. respectively on Oct. 8 to gather input on the sale from PSE customers. Those who are interested in participating may register prior to the hearing by calling 888-333-9882. Once you have registered, you will receive more information on how to participate.)

Members also asked whether PSE could commit to divesting from natural gas and fossil fuel by the 2040s, achieve 100% clean energy benchmarks sooner, abandon the controversial LNG plant project in Tacoma, and more.

But Pierce was unable to provide specific answers to most of their questions, and those that were submitted have been tabled for a future meeting. Pierce promised to return with more information and adequate follow-up.

Islander David Vogel, who helped reform the community council, asked Pierce about what Puget Sound energy is doing in order to prevent its power lines from sparking forest fires, citing PG&E, Pacific Gas and Electric in California, the utility bankrupted after being found responsible for blazes that torched millions of acres in 2017.

Pierce, who noted earlier she was having difficulty with the smoky conditions, said that PSE does not typically service areas that are as susceptible to wildfires as in California, adding that proactively de-energizing power lines in advance of inclement weather such as wind storms as was done in California can pose safety risks.

“We do make a very concerted effort and do a lot of work around vegetation control,” she said. “That works for reliability, and also reduces outages and reduces the chance of a spark created by a [falling] tree limb.”

Before the meeting adjourned, islander Catherine Briggs introduced a potential topic to discuss next time, about local shoreline and habitat preservation, focusing on issues such as shellfish overharvesting, commercial vessel pollution and fire danger posed from driftwood. Anyone interested in weighing in and joining a conversation about shoreline stewardship before the next community council meeting should email vashonmaurymarinelife@gmail.com.

The next community council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, on Webex.


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