Islander David Goebel is collecting signatures for a petition that he will deliver to the Port of Seattle Commission, urging them to add two noise monitors on the north and south ends of the island that will measure sound generated by air traffic.
Goebel is arguing that the implementation of a program called NextGen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has hyper-focused air traffic en route to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport over the island, charting a razor-thin line across the skies directly above his property. A previous environmental study did not find sufficient evidence to warrant the installation of permanent noise monitors on the island, but Goebel maintains that further examination, and ultimately mitigation, is needed.
“I moved to the island in 1998 specifically because it was such a peaceful and quiet place,” he said, adding that a “radical” flight pattern change now coordinates incessant air traffic at lower altitudes overhead, rendering the tranquility of his home nonexistent. He would like to establish an incontestable basis of data to prove that air traffic noise significantly affects the island.
Designed by the FAA, NextGen is a composition of satellite-guided precision navigation initiatives designed to upgrade old technology while increasing flight safety and efficiency. Its procedures have been challenged in court by cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Burien for the disruption caused to residents plagued by constant noise.
Temporary noise monitors were installed at two single-family residences on Vashon in 2010, which was before NextGen components were fully implemented at Sea-Tac. One was located near Maury Island Natural Area for eight days, and the other was on the north end for three days — in July and September of that year during the environmental study, which was conducted by the airport. The final report was completed and released in 2014. The study found that “Vashon ambient [sound] is lower than other sites” where airplane noise was monitored and that “flights are at higher altitude but noticeable.” The greatest intensity of the noise measured on Vashon at the time was 42 decibels, averaged over a 24 hour period. The FAA has determined that noise must reach an average of 65 decibels before neighboring homes may receive sound-insulated fittings, such as new windows and doors, provided by funds from the FAA and Port of Seattle. According to the Port of Seattle’s website, the current noise monitoring system is “not intended to be inclusive of every community.”
The temporary noise monitors were placed throughout King County at select locations based on public input at the time. But several participants who later attended workshops at Sea-Tac airport before the final study was released contested the findings on Vashon.
Record-breaking numbers of passengers travel through Sea-Tac annually, and Goebel called any official attempt to downplay the severity of noise from the airport because of that increase “intellectually dishonest.”
“It’s really disingenuous to claim that noise is the worst it’s ever been because Sea-Tac is the busiest it’s ever been when they know perfectly well they’re talking about passengers. Passengers don’t make noise — planes [do]; it’s operations, takeoffs, and landings, not the number of passengers,” he said. “The important variable is operations.”
Goebel said that the FAA has not considered input from the public when it has been given and that the federal agency did not take reasonable steps to ensure that the NextGen program would have the most minimal impact possible.
“If you’re making a change that’s going to terribly, negatively impact a particular area, it’s really surprising that they don’t talk to anyone in the area that’s going to be the most impacted,” he said, referencing Vashon.
Goebel says planes often fly over the island far below what he believes is mandated and are frequently out of compliance with basic flight procedure. He cited a document taken from the FAA’s website that he interprets as requiring most air traffic to keep a minimum of 6,000 feet over the island. His background is in computer engineering, and he said that he has written software to analyze flight tracks and patterns himself. Suggestions that the problem is in his head, he said, do not convince him, and he finds it discouraging when others question themselves and simply accept the current noise level.
“This isn’t going to work on me, telling me these things aren’t true,” he said.
To engage the issue with other islanders, Goebel created the group Vashon Island Fair Skies this year, which has been registered as a Washington nonprofit organization. The move will help to support more expensive actions and soon allow for proponents to make tax-deductible donations and for corporate matching. At the Strawberry Festival, the group had a booth with a map that illustrated the NextGen-instituted flight path above Vashon, and his noise monitor petition received 298 signatures.
“We’re not saying we want all the planes to go away, because if you talk to people who aren’t at all impacted, they say, ‘Oh, this is NIMBY (not in my backyard), you don’t want any planes,’” said Goebel, who hopes enough pressure will influence the FAA to reappoint the original flight paths. “That’s not it; there’s just no reason why we should get all of them. That’s what’s really unfair.”
Perry Cooper, a spokesperson for the Port of Seattle, said that the noise is compounded by the sheer number of planes in transit by way of Sea-Tac.
“What a lot of folks have been noticing is the volume here at Sea-Tac. We have been the fastest growing airport in the country over the last five years,” he said. “We are a complete reflection of the growth in the Seattle area.”
Cooper said that in 2017 alone, 46.9 million air travel passengers passed through Sea-Tac, a new record.
According to Cooper, 200-250 flights travel on a south flow trajectory over Vashon on arrival to Sea-Tac, and that route accounts for about 70% of the airport’s traffic. Referring to a chart illustrating the narrow flight path now taken over Vashon, he said that “you can see how this is very concentrated on the path, [and] that is a reflection of the NextGen technology. And you could say that’s specific to an area.”
Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesperson, said that he has fielded other questions about the flight procedure document cited by Goebel, but as far as any requirement to maintain an altitude of 6,000 feet over Vashon, he said it “depends on the aircraft and the situation.”
Vashon-Maury residents themselves have a broad range of opinions.
Islander Kenneth Pritchard, who has lived east of the highway for 29 years, said he is not bothered by air traffic noise anymore now than he was before NextGen was implemented.
“I cannot tell the difference,” he said, adding that barking dogs cause him more distress. “I have not noticed any significant difference between NextGen and the old style.”
Pritchard acknowledged that he is aware of conversation on Vashon about the noise, but imagines that most islanders are not rallying behind causes to drastically change operations such as Goebel’s.
“All of a sudden — this is pretty typical of Vashon — you have someone with a bee in his bonnet, and they talk to some other people and say, ‘Hey, let’s create some kind of movement here,’” Pritchard said. “For me, this sounds kind of like it’s a small problem for some people, and they really want to change a whole bunch of things. Aren’t there more important things to worry about than a plane flying at 7,000 feet?”
Will Lockwood, an islander who lives on east Maury, said that plane altitude is only half of the problem. His home faces Sea-Tac, and he said he can hear “everything,” from the sound of flights taking off to routine engine maintenance, which he called “like having thunder in your house.”
“Depending on where you live on the island, you’re going to hear different levels of sound. For those exposed directly to the airport, it’s quite remarkable how loud it is,” he said.
Lockwood said that he has reported complaints about low-flying planes and was responded to; the reason he was given was attributed to shifting winds.
“A low takeover like that is unusual. They were changing patterns through wind change,” he said. “But [I was told] if this continues, you do have the option of complaining directly to the FAA if it persists.”
Lockwood said he has signed petitions calling for methods to reduce the noise on Vashon in the past, but that his participation has stopped there.
“I’ve just sort of become fatalistic about it,” he said, but noise monitors “would be welcomed to have.”
Vashon Island Fair Skies is on Facebook and online at vashonislandfairskies.org.
This version of the article clarifies the total number of flights per day over the island.