Seaplane issues

City and State consider lighted buoys to mark float plane takeoff and landing area

In 2014 the City of Seattle without any public outreach, public meeting, or apparent public notice, applied to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to install in the outline of a float plane takeoff and landing zone, a line of eight buoys centered in the south half of Lake Union. (Initially, the City applied for eight buoys in two lines, but later changed it to a single line of five buoys). The northernmost buoy would be offshore from Boston St., and the southernmost buoy would be offshore from Highland Avenue (a few hundred feet from the docks at Lake Union Park and a distance from the commercial moorage to the east of the park). The buoys would such that when a float plane is about to take off or land, the pilot can remotely cause the buoy lights to flash. (Close to the southernmost buoy, Kenmore Air has a seaplane base that operates 18 planes that take off as many as 40 times a day on Lake Union, with a similar number of landings.)

DNR has posted on its web site at here a brief summary of the proposal, but unfortunately DNR has not posted either the application, the revised application changing the location and number of the proposed buoys, or its own analysis, and so ECC posts them here to facilitate public review. Click here for the 2014 City application. Click here for the February 2016 DNR analysis (including a map showing the latest proposed buoy locations, and a summary of the public comment). Click here for the 2017 version of the City’s proposal with the 2016 map and a 2017 drawing of the buoys and their anchors. DNR has not yet provided on its web site or to ECC an updated analysis since its February 2016 analysis, and so has not provided to the public a summary of the public comment received since then.

The public comments that DNR and ECC have received so far are on both sides of the issue, but seem to be more against than for the lighted buoys. An advocate for the buoys wrote ECC: “Lake Union is a public waterway, and thus open to both public and commercial uses. Public users include sailboats, motorboats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, sail boards, dinner rafts, swimmers and the occasional private seaplane. Commercial users include large ocean going vessel transit for maintenance work, seaplanes, yacht dealers, Argosy, Electric Boat Company, the Center for Wooden Boats, Ride the Ducks, rowing clubs and several kayak rental companies. It is this wide, and growing, range of users and usages that has driven the need for increased safety measures. I hate to see any structures marring the beauty of Lake Union, but the simple fact is that safety measures, such as speed limits, a designated zone for testing and demonstrating yachts for sale, and now the buoys designating the seaplane landing zone, are important tools to help ensure Lake Union continues to be safely used by all.”

An opponent of the lighted buoys wrote to DNR with a very different perspective: “When we sail on the lake our boom hangs out over the edge of the boat and is at an average height of 2-4 feet off the water. A large buoy such as the one in the proposal, USCG 4CFR Buoy, is 4-5 feet tall and will severely impede our navigation of the lake. With a sailboat we will not be able to easily move out of the way of oncoming float planes as expected by the installation of the buoys. On an aesthetic level we are upset by the degradation of the beauty of the lake by large permanent lighted and flashing buoys used to demarcate the landing strip of Kenmore Air. We are most upset that the City would even consider taking a public space such as Lake Union and letting a commercial enterprise encroach on the public’s use and enjoyment of their treasured and unique public space.”

Another anti-letter to DNR adds that the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and International Navigation Rules for Inland Waters “specifically place seaplanes at the very bottom of the right of way hierarchy for good reason and Seattle should not be…rewriting the inland rules for right of way. … Lake Union is THE key access point for on the water recreational activities for thousands of residents annually, and this should not be so readily dismissed. It is a safe, proximate venue for inexperienced people wishing to try numerous activities from kayaking to sailing. … My fear is that, as a result of the placement of these buoys, the safety of sailors and pilots/passengers would be deemed compromised enough that eventually sailing will be deemed in conflict with the seaplane lane, and banned on the lake, as it was in Victoria Harbor in Victoria, B.C.”

Whatever your views, it is not too late to comment on this proposal to the Department of Natural Resources, which has heard from only a few dozen people. Send comments or questions to Vivian Roach, vivian.roach@dnr.wa.gov, 253-341-7564, 950 Farman Avenue North
Enumclaw, WA 98022-9282. For questions, call DNR at (253) 441-0904. ECC would also welcome a copy of your comments, to info@eastlakeseattle.org.

Below is more background on the issue and on the question of growing seaplane use of Lake Union.

Has seaplane use on Lake Union grown beyond what is safe or fair for other users?

Seaplane use of Lake Union dates back at least to 1916 with the historic first Boeing flight from a seaplane base at the foot of East Roanoke Street. For many decades the number of flights on Lake Union was quite low, and even in the 1970s did not exceed 5000 per year. However, the expansion of scheduled service brought the number of flights by the mid-1980s to over 10,000 a year.

Other users of the lake and those who live or work around it became concerned, and beginning in 1978 they pressed the seaplane operators for a series of voluntary agreements. In the 1989 agreement (in which the City of Seattle was for the first time a party), the operators agreed to restrictions such as that scheduled flights would not occur between official sunset and sunrise, with no takeoffs before 8 a.m. on weekdays and Saturdays, or before 9 a.m. on Sundays.

In the various negotiations, the seaplane operators rejected a cap on the number of flights on Lake Union, arguing that they had no plans for an increase. However, the number of flights continued to increase. At the peak summer season here are 40 takeoffs and 40 landings a day (almost all by Kenmore Air)—essentially the maximum that Lake Union can sustain without either lengthening the hours for takeoffs and landings, or marking part of the lake off with lighted buoys that to create a runway on the water that excludes other uses when a seaplane is landing or taking off.

Such a buoy-marked runway is what the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) proposed in 2014 to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which owns the underlying land and thus has the authority, if it wishes, to approve application. The City of Seattle’s application (p. 5) states that “The City proposes to install” the buoys “to demarcate a floatplane landing zone to allow for safe ingress and egress of floatplanes.” The buoys would be lit constantly, with float plane pilots also able remotely to cause additional lights on the buoys to flash on and off when a plane is about to land or take off.

DNR is continuing to accept comments on the proposal, many of which so far have been quite negative, raising objections to the lack of public outreach; that the buoys would interfere with commercial and recreational navigation; that the flashing lights would give preferential use of a public space to private companies, and shift the onus of safety onto other users, many of whom would not be aware of what the warning lights mean; and the buoys would detract from the lake’s beauty, especially when lighted at night.

When pressed as to the absence of consultation with the affected neighborhoods and other stakeholders prior to applying for the buoy-marked runway, the Seattle OPCD points to the 2013 City Council Resolution 31339, whose misleading title is “Declaring the City Council’s intend to support the growth and livability of the South Lake Union Urban Center by working with other City departments to implement initiatives that complement changes to land use regulations.” This resolution included as its last item the following statement, about which none of the affected neighborhoods and stakeholders were consulted: “The Council supports the efforts by Kenmore Air to secure grant funding from the Washington Department of Transportation for a system of buoys to signal to boaters when seaplane operations, such as landings and takeoffs, are about to occur and, if necessary, will consider further statements of support for a grant application by Kenmore Air.”

The Res. 31339 language is unfortunate and should be repealed; but it does not authorize the Seattle OPCD to apply to DNR for permission to allow the buoys or for the City of Seattle to install them. The Seattle OPCD has misused Res. 31339 and is improperly using City resources to do work that Res. 31339 clearly leaves to Kenmore Air. This episode if typical of many others under Mayor Ed Murray in which City agencies are being used to promote private interests at the expanse of the public interest, and without making any effort to consult beforehand with neighborhoods and other stakeholders who would suggest a different course.

The City planners seem blind to how Seattle’s own policies are causing great expansion in the number of businesses and residents who wish to use Lake Union for navigation and recreation. Commercial users include large ocean going vessel transit for maintenance work, seaplanes, yacht dealers, Argosy, Champagne Cruises, Electric Boat Company, Center for Wooden Boats, Northwest Outdoor Center, Moss Bay, Ride the Ducks, rowing clubs and so on. When the weather is good, the Lake is covered with sailboats, motorboats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, sail boards, and dinner rafts.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the International Navigation Rules for Inland Waters place seaplanes at the very bottom of the right of way hierarchy, and yet the City application to DNR would place seaplanes ahead of all other uses.

Rather than essentially privatize part of the increasingly busy Lake Union, Kenmore Air should reduce its operations there and move more of them to its seaplane base in Kenmore at the north end of Lake Washington, and to a new base on the downtown waterfront. In the late 1990s, the company initiated and then dropped efforts to establish a seaplane base on the downtown waterfront; it should resume these efforts. Lake Union is too small with too many other uses that have the right of way over seaplanes, for Kenmore Air to be operating 40 or more takeoffs and 40 or more landings on summer days.

For links to the permit application documents and to various web sites about the role of DNR and other regulatory agencies, see above. Whatever your views, it is not too late to comment on this proposal to the Department of Natural Resources, which has heard from only a few dozen people. Send comments or questions to Vivian Roach, vivian.roach@dnr.wa.gov, 253-341-7564, 950 Farman Avenue North
Enumclaw, WA 98022-9282. For questions, call DNR at (253) 441-0904. ECC would also welcome a copy of your comments, to info@eastlakeseattle.org.

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