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Airport interests implore board to appeal decision to state Supreme Court; city asks Wyden and Merkley to intervene in new planning effort

PMG FILE PHOTO - Fights over the new and old Aurora Airport master planning processes continue.

As is typical for the topic of the Aurora State Airport, a dizzying array of planning and legal components are progressing simultaneously.

First there's the ongoing saga regarding the validity of the 2012 airport master plan update, which called for a runway extension that Wilsonville government officials and some residents have argued would cause noise and traffic issues in the area.

A case brought forward by the cities of Wilsonville and Aurora, among other entities, was dismissed in December 2020 by the Land Use Board of Appeals, only to be sent to the Oregon Court of Appeals and, in June, remanded back to LUBA.

And then there's the new master plan process, which will begin soon and, according to the city, appears unsatisfactory.

During a meeting Thursday, July 15, the Oregon Aviation Board heard from a variety of aviation industry representatives as well as Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and a representative of the Eugene Airport advocating for the board to appeal the OCOA ruling to the Oregon Supreme Court. Airport business interests also recently asked the OCOA to reconsider its decision, citing purported factual errors in its ruling.

Meanwhile, the board agreed to move forward with hiring a consultant for the new master planning process and outlined next steps at the meeting.

If all that weren't enough, the city of Wilsonville is seeking help from federal representatives and the Federal Aviation Administration to force the ODA to address concerns about the master planning process.

Legal fight continues

In its June 16 ruling, the OCOA not only remanded LUBA's 2020 decision on the case but also documented deficiencies in the 2012 airport master plan update. The court determined that the master plan was changed following its purported adoption in 2011 and that, contrary to LUBA's ruling, projects added to the plan would unlawfully encroach on agricultural land.

Airport business interests asked the OCOA to reconsider this decision based on what they believe are factual inaccuracies in the court's opinion. The city of Wilsonville and other entities then filed an objection to the reconsideration motion. The court has yet to decide whether it will agree to reconsider the case.

Airport business interests argue that the OCOA's ruling sets a dangerous precedent that would hinder projects not only in Aurora but throughout the state.

Based on Land Conservation and Development rules, LUBA decided that because the plan doesn't call for projects that would usher in a larger class of airplanes based on tail height and wingspan, it doesn't have to comply with certain statewide planning goals. The OCOA, however, interpreted the LCDC law to also consider plane weight, which led it to object to LUBA's ruling.

Airport proponents note that projects like a long-contested 1,000-foot runway extension were approved in an airport master plan in 1976, and they believe opening up airport projects and plans to litigation based on the OCOA's interpretation to this rule could prove damaging.

"This decision, if not overturned, will make it virtually impossible to modernize public airports without going through lengthy, uncertain and extremely expensive land-use processes," said attorney Wendie Kellington, who represents the Aurora Airport Improvement Association, at the aviation board meeting.

Of course, the cities of Wilsonville and Aurora, 1,000 Friends of Oregon and Aurora Planning Commissioner Joseph Shaefer were much more favorable to the OCOA ruling.

"This scenario is analogous to weight limits on a bridge. Larger trucks may lawfully cross the bridge with special permits, or without being fully loaded. If that bridge were strengthened to eliminate the weight restrictions, one would say the bridge now permits use by a larger class of trucks," their response reads.

During the meeting, aviation board Chair Martha Meeker described the arcane debate over classes of airplanes as "off the rails."

Those asking for the aviation board to take further legal action against the OCOA ruling included representatives from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Oregon Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association.

"The stated mission of the Department of Aviation is to promote growth and economic development of airports and their communities. The board must ask for review of this decision because the decision is antithetical to that mission and it's wrong on the facts and the law," said Joe Smith, a previous aviation board member who represents the board of Oregon Aviation Industries.

The board plans to hold an executive session on the topic in the coming weeks and to subsequently make a decision about whether to ask the state Supreme Court to consider the case.

Cities press lawmakers to intervene

The cities of Wilsonville and Aurora, meanwhile, sent a letter to Rep. Kurt Schrader and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley asking them to intervene with the Federal Aviation Administration to require that federal grant funding for master plan work be allocated only if certain conditions are met. It does not spell out suggested conditions, however.

"We support and agree with the FAA's requirement that a new master plan for the Airport is past due and necessary, but the Scope of Work proposed by ODA is inadequate and does not comply with key elements of federal and state law and public processes," the city's letter reads.

It continues, later: "Furthermore, ODA has already publicly announced an intent to complete the new plan in as short a time frame as possible and with as little environmental due diligence and traffic analysis (air and ground) as possible. This is all being done at the urging of private airport businesses with significant speculative financial stakes in a major Airport expansion."

The cities later contend that the scope of work for the plan doesn't consider the legal battle over the previous master plan update, and the letter raises concerns about the representation on an advisory committee that includes ample business interest but not groups like the Charbonneau Country Club and Deer Creek Estates.

"A momentary pause in funding the master plan update may help provide ODA the incentive necessary to ensure an adequate Scope of Work and to provide all stakeholders a seat at the table," the letter reads.

Planning process moves forward

During the July 15 board meeting, the OAB agreed to move forward with hiring a consultant for the completion of the master plan update. Planning and Project Manager Heather Peck said this process would take about two years, will include at least seven PAC meetings as well as open houses for the public to attend, and won't include an environmental component as that is needed for the advancement of specific projects following the completion of the plan update.

The Wilsonville government said the previous process did not include appropriate public involvement. Peck also said more groups could be added to the advisory committee.

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