County Green Lights Redevelopment of Former Church Property Near Aurora Airport

The Marion County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday green-lighted the zone change of a former church camp adjacent to the Aurora State Airport, clearing the way for the 16.5-acre property to be redeveloped for hangars, offices, shops and other airport-related uses.

Previously zoned for exclusive farm use, the now-defunct church property has a rich history. Originally a Methodist Church camp, it was rechristened in 1977 as the Reef Theological Center and Missionary Memorial Church by Rev. David Bush, who used the site to train dozens of pastors for missions work in the Micronesian and South Pacific islands.

More than a dozen small buildings were constructed among the trees to give visiting pastors a place to stay, but — though the land has not been farmed in decades — it was never rezoned from its exclusive farm use designation.

Beyond the Reef later became the focal point of a Pacific Northwest-based ministry to people of Chuukese descent living in the United States, which eventually led to the establishment of five new Chuukese churches in Washington, Idaho and even Colorado.

The red overlay shows the location of the 16.5-acre parcel adjacent to the Aurora State Airport. Illustration by Google and Tyler Francke.

The ministry relocated to Oahu, Hawaii, in August 2017 (they have our deepest sympathies), and the church property has been vacant ever since. According to Marion County records, the parcel was purchased in 2015 for $2.1 million by TLM Holdings, a company owned by developer Ted Millar, who owns a number of parcels around the airport.

The Friends of Aurora Airport, an initiative of the Aurora Airport Improvement Association, hailed the news in a press release Wednesday morning, saying it will “enable Aurora Airport businesses to conduct more missions and work critical to the local communities we serve.”

“Our airport is home to dozens of local businesses conducting missions critical to the safety and well-being of our communities every day,” said Friends of Aurora Airport spokesman Dylan Frederick. “This decision is a win for all of the families and communities that are served by the important work done by airport businesses every day.”

Missions conducted out of Aurora State Airport include aerial fire suppression efforts, ICU emergency-level transportation, powerline restoration efforts and emergency recovery efforts.

The airport is one of only 84 general aviation airports in the nation with a national significance designation from the FAA, given to airports that play a critical role in national transportation needs and emergency preparedness.

One of the airport’s most high-profile life-and-safety users is LifeFlight, the air ambulance helicopter service that said it may be forced to relocate to another city or even another state if the zone change were not approved.

“The land-use decision enables our airport to do more life saving, mission-critical work for the local communities we serve,” Frederick said.

Marion County commissioners held public hearings for the property zone change in June to hear input from neighbors, local communities and other stakeholders. The decision to approve the zone change request Wednesday was unanimous.

“It was expected,” said Ben Williams, president of the land-use advocacy group Friends of French Prairie, when asked his thoughts about the county’s decision. “This same body approved the zone change and conditional use permit for Helicopters Transport Services on 27 acres in 2009. Unfortunately, the reductions in recommended mitigation, particularly traffic mitigation, will have a direct negative impact on the city of Aurora.”

The City of Aurora had officially opposed the application and commented about the already existing needs for traffic mitigation and road improvements, which Chairman Joseph Schaefer said would only be exacerbated by further development.

The City of Wilsonville, which has also been an opponent of airport expansion in the past, was more muted in this case, saying the potential impacts should be carefully considered “before risking long-term harm to the agricultural sector of farmers, food processors and adjacent industries of the French Prairie area.”

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