A Lake Union community group is raising the alarm over what it says are plans for a permanent, 3,000-foot-long seaplane-landing zone down the center of Lake Union that would be off-limits to boaters and other users.
But Kenmore Air, which operates regular flights from the lake to Vancouver, B.C., the San Juans and elsewhere, says its proposal for changes on Lake Union has been mischaracterized and that it is simply wants help with the growing fleet of paddleboarders and other recreational users who create a major safety hazard for seaplane pilots each summer.
The controversy, the latest in a long-running debate over commercial uses of the increasingly crowded body of water, was sparked after the disclosure of a letter by Kenmore Air president Todd Banks to Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol, which patrols Lake Union.
In the Aug. 14 letter, Banks complained about “recreational boaters and paddleboarders” and others who stray into the 3,000-foot long, 400-foot wide zone in the center of the lake that is used for takeoffs and landings.
The zone is identified by five navigation buoys that flash yellow lights when seaplanes are taking off or landing.
But Kenmore Air officials say the buoys are so routinely ignored by recreational users that the company has had to cancel dozens of flights during busy summer weekends.
In the letter, Banks asked the city to fund more Harbor Patrol units to police the area. But he also suggested that the city reconsider an earlier proposal for “a demarcated landing zone area of Lake Union for the exclusive use of seaplanes.”
Banks’ letter touched off a fierce response from several businesses and others who use the nearly 1-square-mile lake.
“Kenmore Air wants to take over 1.2 million sq. ft. of Lake Union to build an off-limits, dedicated runway that will divide the lake in two,” reads the website of Save Lake Union, whose members contend that Kenmore is pushing for a dedicated runway so it can expand the number of daily takeoffs and landings. Currently, Kenmore Air has up to 50 daily flights out of Lake Union during the peak summer season.
“If there’s a dedicated runway out there, this is not going to be a lake for the public — it’s going to be an airport,” said Peter Erickson of Save Lake Union, which represents a handful of lakeside businesses and houseboat associations. “There’s a lot of [other] users on the lake and they’re all feeling like they are being preempted by a privately owned company.”
John Gowey, Kenmore Air’s director of flight operations, said Kenmore isn’t planning on expanding operations and isn’t looking for a dedicated runway on Lake Union.
However, he said that the company does want significant changes in how the lake is regulated.
For example, Kenmore Air would like a rule that bans boats from parking in the landing zone, but would not prevent them from passing through the zone. Kenmore would also like to see the landing zone made off limits to paddleboarders and other “human-powered vessels,” Gowey said.
“Let’s see if we can keep them out of that area entirely.”
He acknowledges that, back in 2012, when crowding began to be a problem, the company pushed for a landing zone, bounded by eight buoys, that would have been only for seaplanes.
“That was taken off the table, for a number of reasons, including concerns by boating groups,” Gowey said. “And that’s still off the table.”
Indeed, in 2016, after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the state Department of Ecology, and a host of other agencies and stakeholders studied the dedicated landing-zone proposal, the idea was rejected because it would have conflicted with the public’s “right of navigation” in state waters.
Instead, state and local agencies adopted the current “advisory” system: a north-south line of five buoys with signage that merely advises boaters to move 200 feet to the east or the west of the line of buoys whenever the warning lights flash.
Gowey said the advisory system, which went into effect in spring of 2018, has been reasonably effective when Lake Union is moderately busy. But on busy summer evenings, the systems gets “overwhelmed,” Gowey said, likening it to “crosswalk lights on a public street after a Seahawks game.”
In 2018, Kenmore Air said, it diverted more than 100 scheduled Lake Union flights to its Lake Washington facilities. This summer, the company began suspending Lake Union operations after 2pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays — a situation that eventually led Banks to write to the Harbor Patrol.
Gowey said Kenmore Air has discussed its ideas with the city, but that no decisions have been made. A spokesman for the Seattle Police Department said Banks’ requests are still being reviewed.
Judith Malmgren, a longtime Seattle resident who was deeply involved in the landing-zone study process, said Kenmore Air’s critics may be overstating the threat posed by the company’s proposals.
Malmgren said the 2016 decision against a dedicated landing zone makes it unlikely that Kenmore Air will be able to revive the idea for a seaplane-only zone. “It didn’t happen and it’s not going to happen,” Malmgren said. “This idea that Kenmore is going to take over the lake is fake news.”
But Malmgren said the controversy highlights the need to resolve a growing conflict between commercial and recreational users over Lake Union that has intensified as the city population increases. She noted that Kenmore Air is hardly the only commercial user of the lake to be troubled by the crowds of recreational users, many of whom seem not to recognize that Lake Union is a “working lake.”
But Malmgren also thinks the current controversy could ultimately lead to something positive.
In 1989, she said, seaplane companies, neighborhood groups, city officials and other came together to hammer out an agreement that saw seaplane companies change the way they operated. Thirty years later, Malmgren said, “it’s probably time to have (another) chat about what goes on on the lake.”