Residents’ resistance prompted agency to revise its plans
By Don Nelson
A quality-of-life and rural ambience battle that started more than three years ago was settled last week when the aviation division of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced that it will allow a navigational beacon at Methow Valley State Airport to be pilot-activated, rather than continuously operating from dawn to dusk.
WSDOT said it will modify an original plan — announced in 2012 — to install a high-intensity, rotating beacon at the general aviation airport between Twisp and Winthrop, in response to a torrent of negative public comments from Methow Valley residents.
The new beacon that will go into operation on April 25 is of lower intensity and will only operate when activated by pilots. The beacon will operate concurrently with the airport’s runway lighting system, WSDOT said, and pilots can activate both using the airport’s Unicom frequency of 122.8 MHz.
“Once activated the runway lights will remain on for 15 minutes, which is recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration,” WSDOT said. “The beacon light will turn off after five minutes; however, pilots can reactivate it for additional five-minute intervals if necessary.”
The original beacon, which went into operation with no advance notice, alarmed local residents because it created an intensely bright, wide-sweeping beam that could be seen from all over the Methow Valley. It operated for only four nights before WSDOT shut it down, and hasn’t operated regularly since.
“After receiving community feedback that the beacon light was intrusive to residents because of Methow’s unique geographical features, [WSDOT] temporarily turned off the beacon and conducted a visual analysis to explore options to lessen the impacts to neighbors, while still preserving safe aircraft operations,” the agency said in a press release.
Because the originally proposed beacon was supported by federal funds, WSDOT had to submit a “Modification of Airport Design Standards” request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to deviate from FAA requirements.
The original beacon was installed as part of a million-dollar improvement plan at the airport. FAA regulations require airports with runway edge lighting, such as Methow Valley State, to operate a lighted beacon from dawn to dusk.
According to the request-for-modification document, “Upon initial activation of the recently constructed airport rotating beacon on July 14, 2012 … WSDOT Aviation immediately received an overwhelming amount of negative feedback, opposition and criticism from the community with reports that the sweeping beam of light filled the interiors of their homes, preventing sleep, and that the light blotted out the night sky environment, which is highly valued by the Methow community.”
WSDOT conducted a visual impact analysis to study the effects of the beacon. “The study found that all beacon angles tested had substantial direct visual impacts to neighbors and substantial indirect impacts to views of the night sky from properties not directly in the line of sight of the airport,” the request to the FAA said.
WSDOT received more than 400 responses to a public survey about the beacon, with more than 90 percent of the responses indicating that none of the tested alternatives was satisfactory.
Friends of the Night Sky, a local citizens group, provided a package of materials to WSDOT in early 2013, which contains 284 statements from local residents lamenting “ a range of effects, including substantial impacts on health and safety, serious devaluation of property, interference with peaceful use and quiet enjoyment of property, and a general degradation of the peaceful tranquility of the Methow Valley.”
WSDOT’s own investigation led to the conclusion that the only workable alternative would be an air-to-ground beacon activation system controlled by pilots, the agency said. A pilot-activated beacon was also supported by the U.S. Forest Service’s North Cascades Smoke Jumper Base, which operates out of the airport, and 14 local pilots.
WSDOT noted in 2013 that it would take a while for the request to the FAA to wend its way throughout the bureaucracy.
Local attorney Alexander “Sandy” Mackie, who represented Friends of the Night Sky, said in an email that “I will have to ask local residents about further concerns, but the [modification] notice is certainly a good start.”