Court of Appeals Sides with Opponents of Aurora Airport Expansion

The Oregon Court of Appeals handed down a sweeping ruling Wednesday in favor of the cities of Aurora and Wilsonville, the land-use advocacy groups Friends of French Prairie and 1000 Friends of Oregon and others who had joined together to oppose further expansion of the Aurora State Airport.

Airport opponents hailed the ruling as a “sweeping victory” in their battle to stop a proposed 1,000-foot runway extension that supporters say is needed to safely accommodate the numbers and classes of aircraft currently using the airport.

But opponents fear the runway extension and other planned upgrades will bring larger, louder aircraft — and more of them.

Most recently, the complicated land-use case has centered on the 2012 Aurora Airport Master Plan, which is a necessary prerequisite to the expansion, and which — opponents discovered in 2019 — may have never been formally adopted by the Oregon Department of Aviation.

Aurora airport supporters, along with the state aviation board itself, maintained that the plan was approved in October 2011 — but were unable to produce any minutes, final orders or other records verifying this.

An audio recording of the October 2011 meeting — which Friends of French Prairie President Ben Williams obtained through a public records request — appeared to confirm opponents’ suspicions that the master plan was never given a final stamp of approval.

The board attempted to skirt the issue in a controversial meeting held on Halloween 2019 in Sunriver, in which it attempted to formalize its version of events by approving a statement saying it had “adopted the Master Plan at its October 27, 2011, meeting.”

Opponents challenged the move to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, which dismissed the case last year, saying it did not have jurisdiction.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed, saying LUBA wrong on both the law and procedure. What’s more, the court sided with appellants on the matter of the master plan, concluding “the board never formally approved or adopted the 2012 Master Plan after October 27, 2011.”

The decision sends the case back to LUBA, which will now have to decide the original appeal on the merits, with no shortage of input from the appellate court. The Aviation Board and Oregon Department of Aviation may also appeal the ruling to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Opponents hailed Wednesday’s ruling as a long-awaited vindication of their claims that airport backers had ignored public input, established procedure and even state law in their efforts to push through the expansion.

“This decision is a major victory for Oregon land use, affirming that even a state agency cannot create methods to circumvent the state land-use system, especially by trying to do so through simply asserting without proof compatibility with a county comprehensive plan,” Williams said in an email.

“It specifically negates the Department of Aviation’s attempt to claim it was not expanding onto [exclusive farm use] land when its own master plan for Aurora shows it does, and further negates their attempt to argue that increasing the airport classification will not bring in larger aircraft when that, in fact, is precisely what airport classifications are designed to do.”

“The city was right on the issues and right to act to preserve citizens’ role on land use in Oregon,” said Aurora Mayor Brian Asher. Aurora Planning Commission Chair Joseph Schaefer and the city had been the first to enter the fray, before being joined by Wilsonville and the Friends groups. “The decision agrees with everything we have long been saying without being heard. We have now been heard.”

Wilsonville Mayor Julie Fitzgerald also weighed in a statement to The Canby Current, saying the June 16 decision validated her city’s longstanding concerns that “the controversial 2012 Aurora State Airport Master Plan does not comply with state land-use laws.”

“This ruling mandates that the state aviation agency should seek to pilot for a pending new 2021-22 Aurora State Airport master plan update a transparent, fair and equitable public process in accordance with Oregon land-use laws,” she said.

“The city looks forward to the Department of Aviation balancing the new master plan advisory committee with representatives of local-area community planning organizations, homeowners associations and other conservation/public-interest organizations so as to avoid having a majority of vested airport financial interests.”

But airport backers appeared unfazed by the setback.

“Supporters and businesses of the airport are still looking into the court’s ruling and how it impacts the long-planned safety improvements,” Friends of the Aurora State Airport spokesman Dylan Frederick said. “Regardless, the ruling doesn’t distract our airport or our businesses from doing what we’ve always done best: conducting work that is mission-critical to local communities.

“It has long been the mission of the Aurora State Airport to be the safest and most emergency-ready general aviation airport in the state. We will keep striving toward that every day.”

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