House Bill 4092, which would open the door to the Aurora Airport runway expansion, awaits its fate

By carol rosen

The Canby Herald

In the continuing saga of the runway extension for the Aurora Airport, the Oregon House's Transportation Committee agreed on Feb. 13 to pass HB4092 on to the Rules Committee.

This follows the Feb. 9 hearing allowing area residents, aviation officials and corporate fliers to testify for and against the bill.

While nothing had happened at press time, the House Rules committee can either post a 24-hour notice that the bill would be heard. Or, it can suspend the rules and be heard immediately.

Or there's the possibility it will languish in the committee and never be heard, which in effect would kill the bill.

The Aurora Airport's runway fate is now awaiting a committee decision with only a few days left in the Oregon Legislature's session.

Nearly four weeks have passed since the current 35-day session started, with only 12 days left.

More than 40 residents, including those in the areas around the airport and in its flight path, testified against the bill, recommending the committee kill the extension.

"The state has had a plan in place since 2012 that calls for environmental impact studies and now suddenly these representatives are in a big hurry to push this bill through without considering the impact on residents, schools and the land itself," said Jan Shea, an attorney from Aurora.

And Salem's mayor wrote to the hearing that allowing big jets into Aurora will cause the state capital's airport to close.

Residents have expressed concern that they've been left out of the process, especially circumventing the need for environmental, noise, safety and pollution studies. They say the sponsors provided almost no chance for local communities to find out about the bill or took time to educate the people it will affect.

Others noted there's a chance an earthquake could liquefy the runway in case of a moderate to heavy quake. That would dash the bill's author Rep. Rick Lewis' main reason for the extension, said Ben Williams, president of the Friends of French Prairie.

Lewis has said the extension is necessary so that in case of an emergency, planes could arrive here with equipment, supplies and manpower.

"If the extension of the state airport runway area will be placed on land zoned for exclusive farm use, a local planning body shall approve the extension of the state airport runway area under this section unless after a public hearing that body finds the extension will cause significant impacts in existing farm practices on surrounding lands zoned for and dedicated to farm use."

"Or the extension imposes significant adverse effects to public health, safety or welfare of individuals working or residing in the area" Williams said.

By contrast, those testifying for the extension, and there appeared to be at least as many in favor, told of its benefits, including the ability for jets to take off and land more safely. They would like to see more runway for planes loaded with a full cargo and for those traveling a far distance to have enough fuel so the plane won't have to stop to refuel.

"We are having huge operational constraints going in and out of Aurora," said John Maletis who operates a Global Express plane from Aurora. "I'm concerned that due to the short length of the runway at Aurora, we may have to reconsider our base in the future if something isn't done about the runway…"

The hearing also received a letter of support from Tony Helbling the logistics manager for Wilson Construction Company. He noted his company operates flights throughout the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.

"The extension of the Aurora runway will greatly enhance the safe and efficient operation of our airplanes," he wrote. "With respect to safety, a runway extension provides our pilots the extra space to safely abort a takeoff in the event of an emergency. We are currently operating constrained as we are forced to fly from Aurora to Hillsboro to take on fuel before we can travel to jobs on the East Coast or in Hawaii."

However, neither of them mentioned that a commercial runway exists 22 miles down the road in Salem. That airport can and has handled corporate and commercial airlines and has runways available for larger jets.

The Aurora Airport is the largest state-owned airport in Oregon. It currently houses about 432 smaller planes and helicopters and 21 jets. Those in favor of the extension claim the extra 1,000 feet are necessary to handle larger jets as well as fully-loaded jets and planes with topped off gas tanks. Their opponents fear a potential crash, especially just after take-off, over or near schools that could create a huge emergency.

HB4092 describes a state airport as an airport or air navigation facility owned or controlled by the state of Oregon. It states that "if the airport has at least 350 aircraft, the Oregon Department of Aviation can extend a state airport runway area on land not zoned for a state airport, including land zoned for exclusive farm use..."

But there are some planes landing at Aurora that don't meet the airport's current design standards, according to Aurora resident Tom Potter.

He testified at the Feb. 9 hearing that on Feb. 2, he saw a Bombardier BD-700 Global Express on the runway, which was 99.5 feet long, had a 94 foot wingspan and a maximum weight of 98,000 pounds with an empty weight of 51,200 pounds. It's way over the airport's design standard. Potter took photos of the plane and asked both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Oregon Department of Aviation if there are restrictions against use of such planes using the Aurora Airport. Matt Maas from ODA told Potter that plane doesn't meet Aurora's airport design standards. This would be classified as a "constrained operation."

Additionally, Maas said big jets already are flying in and out of Aurora and have been for some time.

"This is why the runway extension is so important and why we are doing the constrained operations study, we want the airport to safely handle the aircraft that are using the airport today," Maas added.

An FAA spokesman checked out Potter's concerns and noted that particular aircraft have a waiver allowing the larger jet to operate outside of Aurora Airport constraints.

All of this now depends on what the Legislature does. It's a very short session and already more than half of the 35 days are gone. The question now is will it languish in committee or will the Rules Committee do something by March 23?

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