Friends of French Prairie appeals verdict on Aurora Airport Master Plan
Local farmland advocates — often with the support of the City of Wilsonville — have been embroiled in a years' long dispute with the Oregon Department of Aviation (ODA) and those in favor of Aurora Airport improvements over the validity of the 2012 Aurora Airport Master Plan. Now, the two sides will likely make their case in front of a quasi-judicial body.
Friends of French Prairie, a group of citizens who have consistently advocated for the protection of farmland in the French Prairie area, recently filed an appeal to the State of Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) contesting the purported approval of the 2012 Aurora Airport Master Plan, which includes plans to extend the airport's runway by 1,000 feet. Typically, projects are advanced according to a master planning document and aren't supposed to go forward unless listed in an approved master plan. However, the ODA and the Oregon legislators have attempted to garner funding for the runway extension.
The French Prairie group has stated that it doesn't think land use laws were met during the master planning process in the early part of the decade while the City has objected to the fact that it's not included in the intergovernmental agreement over planning of the airport and has raised concerns about exacerbated traffic and other issues airport expansion could cause. Airport advocates, meanwhile, believe a runway extension would improve pilot safety and that the additional flights it could allow would be an economic boon to the area.
The basis of the LUBA appeal is a letter ODA Director Betty Stansbury sent to Friends of French Prairie stating that the master plan had been approved, an assertion that is contrary to a previous letter she sent to the group. Meanwhile, the ODA is currently in the process of evaluating "the compatibility of the Federal Aviation Administration-approved 2012 Aurora State Airport Master Plan Update with applicable land use plans and statewide planning goals" and will provide findings on the matter to the Oregon Aviation Board (OAB) at a meeting Oct. 31.
A meeting notice says the OAB will consider approval of the master plan at that meeting.
Stansbury reiterated to the Spokesman that the ODA considers the airport master plan to have been approved but that the ODA is going through approval processes for state owned airports across Oregon to make sure master plans comply with a recently adopted state agency coordinating agreement (SAC), which makes sure "land use programs are carried out in compliance with statewide planning goals," according to the state website.
Stansbury said the ODA had not established the SAC program, which is a requirement of state agencies, until recently even though it broke off from the Oregon Department of Transportation in 1999.
"It was in the last year or so that the state aviation board adopted its own (SAC agreement), so now we are bringing it forward since we have an approved plan," Stansbury said.
However, Stansbury said she could not comment on pending litigation regarding the LUBA appeal.
Wilsonville Assistant City Attorney Amanda Guile-Hinman, meanwhile, said the City was unsure about if the master plan had been approved.
"There is an open question with this public process that is going on simultaneously on whether it is final or not," Guile-Hinman said.
Friends of French Prairie's position is that Stansbury's letter stating the master plan has been approved is a land use decision, which is why it submitted the appeal.
"The simplest way to explain it is that when a land use decision is made and notice goes out there's 21 days to appeal to the land use board of appeals," Friends of French Prairie Attorney Jeffrey Kleinman said. "That letter came out and said 'Hey, the master plan was adopted.' So in that case as far as I'm concerned we needed to appeal that letter as though it were the land use decision — which it may well be, regardless of the contradictory contents of anything else."
After the ODA files the record for the case, LUBA will have 77 days to make a decision.
The City voted in a meeting Monday, Sept. 16 to submit testimony establishing its position in favor of redoing the master plan regarding the ODA's process to determine whether the plan complies with state land use laws and for a motion to intervene in the LUBA case once hearings begin.
Because Wilsonville filed a motion to intervene, it can provide testimony in the LUBA case.
"My clients are very pleased to have intervention and support by affected governments," Kleinman said.
Friends of French Prairie President Ben Williams has stated for years that he thought the 2012 planning process did not satisfy land use laws, but questions over the issue precipitated months ago.
In April, Stansbury wrote in a letter to Kleinman stating that the OAB had never voted to adopt the 2012 master plan. This revelation raised questions about the validity of projects not supported by the previous iteration of the master plan, such as a proposed 1,000-foot extension of the airport runway. The ODA submitted a grant application in 2018 to the FAA for $37 million in funding to build the runway and state legislators tried to pass a bill to fund the project. Both attempts to greenlight the project failed.
However, in another letter to Kleinman sent in late August, Stansbury contradicted her previous stance, stating that the master plan had in fact been adopted in October 2011.
The letter did not provide evidence to that claim and meeting minutes the ODA provided the Spokesman in May showed that the ODA considered a draft of the master plan and the final chapters of the master plan but did not document approval of the final plan.
Even though Stansbury said otherwise at the time, ODA Chair Martha Meeker told the Spokesman in May that the Board formally approved the master plan in 2011.
The ODA has also previously argued that the FAA's approval of the Aurora Airport Layout Plan, which is one component of the master plan, constituted the approval of the master plan.
"We believe it's because they either were ignorant enough that they didn't know FAA approval is not the same as state approval or they made a conscious decision to misrepresent the FAA approval as the state land use approval," Williams said.
Along with the question of whether it was formally adopted, Friends of French Prairie contends that state land use laws pertaining to public input weren't met during the creation of the plan in the early part of the decade. More specifically, Williams said that the required public process was conducted prior to when the ODA added the runway extension project to the master plan and that state land use laws indicate that public input must be conducted when a significant project is added to a plan.
"When you go from a recommendation of no build, which is $0, to a recommended extension of $7 million (for the runway extension) that seems significant to me," Williams said.
The group also contends that the data the ODA used to justify expansion at the airport is misleading and outdated. Based on data collected at the airport's air traffic control tower, which was completed in 2015, Friends of French Prairie documents in a report that the forecasted total operations at the airport shown in the 2012 master plan are 38-52% higher than the actual operations from 2016 to 2018. Friends of French Prairie obtained this data via the Air Traffic Activity Data System.
According to Williams, this data raises questions about a survey the ODA conducted showing that the airport had 645 "constrained operations," a measure advocates have used to justify the runway extension, in 2018.
"The new ODA surveys show a 33% increase in Constrained Operations since 2012, a result that is seriously at odds with the fact that actual Total Operations are running an average of 44% below forecast, and based aircraft (aircraft that are based at the airport) are down by 8.2%," the study reads.