Backers of an Aurora State Airport expansion project south of Wilsonville have won a key legal ruling in a battle involving the reach of Oregon’s system for protecting farmland from urban development.
The Oregon Board of Land Use Appeals ruled Wednesday that the airport’s master plan – which calls for extending the runway by 1,000 feet – does not need to prove that it meets the state’s land-use goals. The decision was a defeat for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a group dedicated to protecting strict land-use controls, and for the cities of Wilsonville and Aurora.
Bruce Bennett, an aircraft broker at the airport involved in the litigation, said the ruling vindicated the position of airport backers that the project did not raise significant land-use concerns.
“It’s really good news,” said Bennett, adding that the legal action “was an absurd misunderstanding, and a waste of time and money fighting safety improvements.”
Wilsonville City Attorney Barbara Jacobson said the city may appeal the decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The city has long sought to restrict growth outside the urban growth boundary – which ends just north of the airport. And officials are also concerned about potential noise and local traffic impacts if Aurora’s flight operations increase.
“The court’s ruling was disappointing, but it isn’t the end of the story,” Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, the working lands engagement coordinator for 1000 Friends, said in a statement. She said the Aurora airport should prioritize the use of its existing site and “direct new industry inside the urban growth boundary.”
The Aurora State Airport is owned by the state and hosts several large aviation-related businesses, including Columbia Helicopters and the Life Flight Network. About 1,200 people work out of the facility, which has about 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year. While corporate jets frequently use the airport, it has no passenger airline operations.
Both sides agree on one thing: the airport runway won’t be expanded anytime soon.
Jacobson, the Wilsonville city attorney, said the Federal Aviation Administration stated this week that extending the runway would require an update of the airport master plan. That by itself could delay any expansion plans, she said.
Bennett said it’s no surprise that the FAA requires careful review of anything affecting airport flight operations. And backers still need to secure funding and other approval to make the runway extension a reality.
“It will be years” before the runway can be extended, said Bennett, adding that “the construction crew doesn’t show up tomorrow.”
The airport is just off Interstate 5 and is in an area where there has been a long concern over preserving farmland in the Willamette Valley. In the early 1970s, the development of the community of Charbonneau on prime farmland between the airport and Wilsonville was one of the factors that built political support for Oregon’s unique system of statewide land-use controls. Charbonneau is now part of the city of Wilsonville.
Friends of French Prairie, a land-use group affiliated with 1000 Friends, also participated in the legal case decided by the Land Use Board of Appeals.
The fight over the airport’s future has been intense at times. Before the last election, Bennett and other airport business figures poured money into the mayor’s race and two council seats. They hoped to win a council majority that would be friendlier to their airport plans. However, their favored candidates lost all three races.