In 1978, the University Of Washington Office Of Environmental Mediation convened a panel to recommend the future role of the Snohomish County Airport (Paine Field). The “mediated role determination” (MRD) panel suggested that general aviation and commercial aeronautical work (such as Boeing’s Everett plant) be the dominant uses of Paine Field. The MRD Panel recommended encouraging those uses, and discouraged any usages incompatible with community harmony.
In late 1978 and early 1979, the Snohomish County Planning Commission adopted the recommendations and forwarded them to the County Commissioners who adopted the recommendations with few changes. These two documents are colloquially known as the “MRD Document”.
The community and aviation business changed dramatically in the past quarter century. Population zoomed. Aeronautical technologies improved, with larger jets becoming quieter. Environmental, land use, and planning laws became ever more stringent. The form of County government changed from a commission system (in which the commissioners handle both the legislative and executive functions of government) to an executive/council form of government (in which the executive leads, provides policy direction, and operates the government while an elected council decides overarching policy issues and approves the budget). The 1980s saw many fights around the country between local jurisdictions and the aviation industry over noise and other impacts from a burgeoning scheduled passenger air service industry. Those fights led the federal government to pre-empt local attempts to control the type, frequency, and noise of scheduled passenger air service.
After booming through the 1990s, the economy saw a downturn with the dawn of the 21st century. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City exacerbated the economic problems. Boeing laid off thousands. The County Council and then County Executive Bob Drewel formed a task force to develop methods of stimulating the local economy. The task force produced an economic stimulus action plan in 2002.
The 2002 action plan called for exploration of regional air service and for specific steps to prepare the way for regional air service. This plan concerned the communities of south Snohomish County. Many south County residents believed the MRD document forbade scheduled passenger air service and were concerned that scheduled passenger air service would disrupt and diminish the quality of life that attracted them to the area.
In 2005, County Executive Aaron Reardon formed a panel of twelve community members to review and update the role of Paine Field defined by the Snohomish County commissioners in 1978, and charged the community panel to update the MRD Document.
The community panel held its first meeting in November 2005 and heard from numerous experts on such diverse topics as land use, noise, airport operations, and airport law.
Some community panel members viewed the MRD Document as an important, fundamental social compact between the County government and the citizens and south County cities. Some of these community panel members would like to see the MRD Document rewritten to more clearly state a dislike for scheduled passenger air service.
Other community panel members believed the MRD Document has been overtaken by events and is no longer relevant except as an historical relic. They believe the MRD Document is subsumed within Comprehensive Plans mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act and Airport Master Plan. They say the MRD Document informed the decisions made in the Comprehensive and Master Plans, and the Plans now describe the appropriate role of Paine Field.
These community panel members would like to see scheduled passenger air service at Paine Field and felt such service would drive economic development and provide a substantial convenience to users. This perspective was countered by other community panel members who vehemently disagreed, arguing no evidence supported the claim that scheduled passenger air service would stimulate economic development and claiming that scheduled passenger air service would devalue property and diminish a cherished quality of life.
The panel completed its charge in December 2006. The community panel substantially agreed on how to update the language, though some felt no need to update the MRD Document at all. For example, the community panel generally agreed that references to military aircraft operations could be deleted because Paine Field no longer hosts a military aviation unit.
The efforts of the community panel identified three primary, fundamental factors influencing the future role of the Snohomish County Airport (Paine Field):
Current federal law does not allow the County to prohibit or limit scheduled passenger air service.
Current federal law does not require the County to encourage or subsidize scheduled passenger air service.
The County can and should insist that an airline pay its own way and mitigate its impacts.
The leadership of Executive Reardon provided a much needed and long overdue community discussion. Many misunderstandings regarding the effect of the MRD Document were dispelled and regional citizens on all sides of the aviation issue came away with a clearer and better understanding of the technical and regulatory environment in which the airport operates.
For a full version of the Report on the Mediated Role Determination for Paine Field, click here.
For Snohomish County's official MRD website, click here.