Election issues: Council candidates address Aurora Airport legal battle
In the fourth installment of our Q&A series, we asked City Council and mayoral candidates about their thoughts on the city's ongoing battles over Aurora Airport planning. If a candidate's answers don't appear, it's because they didn't provide them. We also added parentheses in certain cases for context.
But first, here's a little background: For about a decade the city of Wilsonville has led efforts to prevent the Oregon Department of Aviation from completing projects like extending the airport runway, in part because leaders feel that land use processes have not been followed according to state law and because Wilsonville hasn't been properly included in planning efforts.
Other than procedural concerns, some reasons why city leaders oppose airport projects that could lead to expansion include fear of exacerbating traffic issues locally, Charbonneau residents tiring of noisy planes flying over their community and wanting to protect local agriculture from industrial development, among other reasons. Airport business leaders have questioned the city's dogged efforts, saying it's a waste of taxpayer resources to have city employees including the legal department spend time contesting planning for an airport located outside of city boundaries and Clackamas County. The Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce has also opposed the city's stance on this issue.
Currently, the city is enmeshed in a legal fight over the validity of the most recent iteration of the Aurora Airport Master Plan, which it says was conducted without following state guidelines. The city submitted its brief in the Land Use Board of Appeals Case Sept. 21 and is awaiting response from the Oregon Department of Aviation and the Oregon Aviation Board.
For context, Councilor Ben West and former councilor Julie Fitzgerald are running for mayor while Council President Kristin Akervall, Councilor Joann Linville, John Budiao and Imran Haider are running for two open council seats.
The city has spent years contesting a runway extension project and the potential expansion of Aurora Airport operations. What do you think about the tact the council has taken regarding the airport?
Linville: I believe the statement in this question is not accurate. The "council" has not contested extension or expansion at the airport. Rather, the city contends that the 2012 Master Plan was never brought back to the Oregon Aviation Board for final approval. Additionally, adoption of compatibility and compliance with state statutes was not determined at the time the plan was alleged to be adopted. The city is only asking for a determination of a valid Aurora Airport Master Plan and for the opportunity to have input as an affected city as was done in the development and approval of the 1976 Aurora Airport Master Plan (Updated 1988, 2000).
Haider: I think the council has and will act to the best of their ability, retrieving the facts and making decisions they think are best for the future of this community. Elected city officials will do their best to perform any duty "with tact" and hopefully the community will rally together and support in any direction.
Budiao: Most Wilsonville residents I've spoken with are surprised the city opposes the runway extension. Many feel it is a waste of time, money and energy. The 6,000-foot runway has been in the Aurora Airport Master Plan since 1976 (though it hasn't been included in all iterations of the plan) and again reaffirmed in the most recent master plan update. The 1,000-foot extension of the runway is a critical component to keeping Wilsonville residents safe in the event of a catastrophic emergency like the wildfires we experienced last week. The runway offers the quick and efficient transportation of people and supplies that will further help keep residents safe.
Akervall: I was elected to serve ALL of the community, and this means listening to issues that affect our city broadly as well as specific segments within the city, and protecting community members' ability to be heard in a public process. My perception is that the Council has not contested the runway extension itself, but the manner by which its advocates have pushed forward projects without adhering to state land use laws and public meeting laws. All people in our community should have a voice in matters that affect their quality of life. I have always welcomed participation and collaboration from all in matters that impact our city and our greater region. I support Oregon's land use laws and believe in the benefit of having open and transparent public processes that follow the structure set in place by our state government for equitable outcomes. These processes are built to encourage trust, respect, and long-term health for everyone in our community. I appreciate Council's stance in listening to the public and pushing for the adherence to these statewide regulations.
Fitzgerald: If the Aurora Airport is going to significantly expand its operations it is important for Wilsonville to have a seat at the table regarding those plans. The impact on Interstate-5 and local access roads needs to be anticipated and mitigated. The potential for larger jet aircraft traffic needs to be evaluated along with the potential for overflight noise and pollution in our neighborhoods. As a mayor representing Wilsonville citizens, I will be vigilant in keeping an eye on the scope and scale of any impacts on the community.
West: It is essential that agreements around flight paths and noise abatement are respected. I am confident that Wilsonville can co-exist, and find a balance that supports the experience of the residents, while working collaboratively with the airport, which provides vital infrastructure and careers for the region. I question the council's approach to oppose the 1,000-foot extension of the runway that has been in the master plan for decades (it has not been in all interactions of the master plan). The Aurora Airport played an essential role in fighting the most recent fires. The runway extension will be instrumental in keeping our residents and the region safer with faster and more efficient transportation of people and supplies in a crisis.
How do you think further development at the airport would impact Wilsonville?
Akervall: A transparent public process that brings all potentially affected parties to the table would be the best tool in determining what the precise implications would be for all of Wilsonville. I have heard concerns from many in the Charbonneau community about traffic impacts on I-5 (specifically on the Boone Bridge), as well as environmental concerns. However, a meaningful public process is needed to work with all voices to assure collective, careful examination of accurate data and inclusive discussion.
Fitzgerald: Airport growth could mean more jobs, more demand for housing, and increased retail business. It could also mean more traffic congestion, noise, and conflicts for existing residents. The city of Wilsonville has the potential for significant new growth in family wage jobs within its borders, at Coffee Creek and Basalt Creek. Such growth would pay its way with impact fees and produce on-going tax benefits to Wilsonville. Industrial growth at the Aurora Airport has the potential to exacerbate traffic congestion without contributing any impact fees; any tax benefits would go to Marion County.
West: Recent government studies show that the Aurora Airport provides over 1,000 direct jobs, and over 1,500 indirect jobs to the region. The Aurora Airport infuses our region with more than $72 million in direct payroll, and even more indirectly. Unemployment in Clackamas County is approaching 11% and people in our community are worried about putting food on the table. My responsibility as mayor will be to ensure we do not turn away opportunities for living wage job creation. The possibility of job creation, and job diversity, at the airport is something we should not ignore.
Haider: Like any issue in any growing city, it will have pros and cons. Growth in this city going back years has been about making change and developing a growing community. Right now, we are in unprecedented times that may call for outside-the-box thinking to stimulate our local job market and input measures that can help with safety and emergency response possibilities. Living in a city that neighbors I-5 and a major freight train path can be both challenging (with noise) and lucrative (with great access and location). The airport creates an extension of these areas. I spoke with Tim Smith who worked directly on the expansion of the Pegosa Springs Airport in Colorado, which was in a suburban city similar to Wilsonville. He said they had a lot of doubters that did not want the extra noise and traffic. He said he studied decibels from the G-4 jet and they were lower than a lawn mower and noise lasted for less than 10 seconds overhead. After the expansion was completed eight years later he said residents followed up saying they were surprised that it did not impact their quality of life at all.
Budiao: It's important to understand that "further development" will not change the operations or type of airport Aurora has been for decades. Increased runway length makes it safer for landings and take offs. Furthermore, the airport is almost entirely developed and will not continue to grow in size. The development of the airport in terms of increased business growth or job growth will directly impact the Wilsonville economy. Businesses based at the Aurora State Airport employ over 2,000 people, many being Wilsonville residents. Any opportunity to create more family-wage jobs for residents of Wilsonville should be supported and promoted.
Linville: The impact on Wilsonville of development at the airport must include finding of compatibility with the acknowledged comprehensive plans of affected cities and compliance with applicable statewide planning goals (OAR 738-130-0055(5). This requirement has not been met by the owner and operator of the airport, the Oregon Department of Aviation in the alleged 2012 Master Plan. It would be presumptuous for me, or anyone else, to assume they could predict the outcome of such analysis. It is suggested that the city's most densely populated development, in closest proximity to the airport, will be most affected and experience additional noise, air quality degradation, increased traffic and negative environmental impacts.
The City Council has argued that part of the reason it's contesting airport planning is to ensure that processes are followed according to state law. City leaders have stated that the Aurora Airport master planning process should start over again. What do you think?
Budiao: The process has never changed and is dictated by State and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requirements. The Oregon Department of Aviation formed a Public Advisory Committee composed of government officials, airport users and community members to include a Wilsonville City Council member and residents of Wilsonville. The public processes included many open houses, many public meetings and many public hearings. The misconception that this process was not according to state law is a falsity. Our city could and should have a specific representative(s) that coordinates with the airport and I would volunteer if elected. I would represent Wilsonville and increase the dialogue and transparency of discussions. I would ensure that all citizen concerns were brought to the table for on the record conversations.
Haider: It should follow state law as best as possible. That is priority number one. My main concern with furthering the process would be taxpayer money ineffectively used for months and years more. In speaking with Tim Smith, he also mentioned that the FAA went through a stringent process of looking at many pre-req requirements of environmental assessments, wetlands, air quality, water quality, and more.
Fitzgerald: The Wilsonville City Council has not contested airport planning. They have argued against a process that excluded us from the process and did not follow the rules for Master Planning set out by either the FAA or Oregon land use laws. As noted above, it is essential that Wilsonville be a part of the planning process throughout.
Akervall: While the airport is in Marion County, the effects of its expansion will be felt in nearby Clackamas County and the city of Wilsonville, areas left out of the master planning process. It is my understanding that city leaders raised concerns with the Aurora Airport master planning process and requested the process follow public meeting laws and land use laws, which call for Wilsonville and Clackamas County to be included in that process due to their role as an "affected" city and county. While there may be some in Wilsonville that don't share alarm about the development planning at the airport, I don't think we can ignore or avoid listening to a segment that is deeply concerned. City leaders request the benefit of these inclusive and public processes be realized for all parties involved.
West: The 1976 Aurora Airport Master Plan envisioned a 6,000-foot runway by 1995. When an updated master plan was in the works in 2011, a Public Advisory Committee included a Wilsonville City Council member and residents of the city, and I understand that the city participated in open houses, public meetings and public hearings. I am glad that our city's voice was heard at that time. Since I have been on Council, I have seen very little collaboration with the airport to ensure citizens are informed of the runway extension efforts. The city has a responsibility to ascertain the majority opinion, and, as mayor, every citizen should know that their voice will be heard.
Linville: The existence of a current and valid Aurora Airport Master Plan currently lies with the decision on appeal to the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) in the case of City of Aurora, City of Wilsonville, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and Friends of French Prairie v. Oregon State Aviation Board and Oregon Department of Aviation. I believe LUBA is very capable of making a sound determination in this matter and I will support their decision.
Some airport leaders argue that the airport supports Wilsonville's economy in myriad ways and that the city's contestation of airport planning is a waste of the city's time and resources. What do you think about their viewpoint?
West: The city has a fiduciary responsibility to provide transparency with public funds, and we should certainly give a critical eye to how much time, effort and money has been put into contesting airport planning. When you consider the information provided by the Oregon Aviation Plan that the airport's economic impact to the state is nearly half a billion dollars, and that it employs thousands directly and indirectly, our city should carefully consider whether we want to oppose its operations. Businesses look at Wilsonville's proximity to the airport when considering locating here. People who work at the airport, or own businesses there, live in Wilsonville. I believe that greater consideration needs to be given to those points.
Linville: I want to be very clear that I am not opposed to the Aurora Airport and the important role it currently plays in its surrounding cities. I administered Helicopter Training and started an Airframe and Powerplant program at colleges in which I have worked. I have worked with airports and appreciate the benefits they bring to our cities, state and region particularly with LifeFlight and Columbia Helicopters. Economic contribution is not a rationale to ignore Wilsonville's obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens impacted by the airport. All business and industry organizations are obligated to comply with requisite state/local rules and regulations without regard to their contribution to the economy. The Aurora Airport is not an exception regardless of its role in local economies.
Akervall: The airport serves as a resource for businesses in our region and, of course, many businesses are part of the airport itself, but I do believe all projects need to follow the public processes set up to promote healthy community development and growth — regardless of industry. Schools, medical facilities, libraries, all provide benefits for the community and all follow public process. As a member of Council, I have supported job growth within the city and the economic development that serves the city of Wilsonville as a whole — residents, our business community, and our future generations. We must prioritize a framework and investments that support transparency and equity, at the same time ensuring the long-term health of community members, and city businesses.
Haider: As stated in the other questions, there are pros and cons. We should look at other cities like Pegosa Springs that have done something very similar and honestly, that is the best way in our communities to develop the best policy, or measure. I can guarantee you one thing: people of this city all want a safe, thriving, united community to live and grow. Getting accurate information for how to help local businesses get their revenues up and keep citizens happy with their sleep schedules and commute times are all of high priority. If the modification to the airport can offer some of that growth, while assuring to keep lifestyle the same (especially for those in Charbonneau) it should be considered. I also think we can and should bring in people like Tim to provide first-hand testimony of an almost identical situation.
Fitzgerald: Again, the city is not contesting airport planning or the existence of the airport, but is insisting that any master planning follow the rules like every other developer does. Wilsonville has more residents with direct Aurora Airport impacts than any other jurisdiction. It stands to reason that Wilsonville should be part of any plans for expansion so that the necessary investment in roads, health, and safety needed to mitigate those changes can be determined. Wilsonville is a livable city because we have always engaged in good community planning. Growth at the airport needs to balance both the opportunities and the challenges of airport growth.
Budiao: The airport's contribution to the Wilsonville economy is not a theory held by select business owners at the airport; it's a proven fact. The Oregon Aviation Plan estimates the airport's economic impact to be over $500 million to the Oregon economy. Airport businesses and employees spend millions of dollars locally at our hotels, restaurants, car dealers, real estate companies and stores. The local auto supply store takes in over $1 million annually from airport business. The airport brings in significant interest from prospective businesses considering relocation to Wilsonville. Several Wilsonville businesses like Life Flight and FLIR rely on the airport for the daily operation of their business. The city's use of tax dollars to oppose increased safety, jobs, and emergency preparedness for its residents is absurd.
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