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Airpark hearing approaches city

Scappoose City Council will decide whether airpark residential concept advances or dies

The Scappoose City Council will decide on Tuesday, Jan. 22, whether or not to adopt a new zone into its comprehensive plan that would allow a mix of land uses, including the possibility of residential and industrial developments occurring side-by-side.

Sierra Pacific Communities LLC, the Tigard-based company that owns a majority of property surrounding the Port of St. Helens-managed airport, is asking the city to adopt the mixed-use zone.

If successful, the filing is expected to segue into a later Sierra Pacific application under the new zone to allow a 70-acre residential airpark adjacent to the airport. A residential airpark is a type of special subdivision that, in addition to houses, garages and access roads, also has hangers for aircraft and taxiways to a nearby airport, whether a private or - as in the case of Scappoose Industrial Airpark - public airport.

Sierra Pacific hit a significant setback in November, when the city's Planning Commission unanimously aligned against the idea of a residential airpark, arguing that it would subtract land promised for industrial development out of the city's growth equation. Also, the commissioners were uncomfortable with the outspoken opposition to the idea from state and federal regulatory agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration.

Ed Freeman, Sierra Pacific's owner, said money generated from construction of the residential airpark is a critical component for expansion of industrial land on the east side of the airport, where Sierra Pacific has set its sights on development of around 600 acres, including a 200-acre police training facility.

In addition to the $3 million Sierra Pacific has privately spent developing properties on the west side of the runway, Freeman said his company has already spent around $200,000 pursuing the airpark residential piece, an investment he said was encouraged by the Port of St. Helens Commission.

In fact, the Port had amended its airport master plan to include airpark residential growth as a possible use for the airport. 'All we have done is come up with a concept that they have been a party to for the last couple of years,' Freeman said.

Communication questioned

At the Port meeting following the Planning Commission decision, the Port Commission voted to suspend language in the master plan related to residential airparks, a decision never directly conveyed to Sierra Pacific.

The suspension of airpark residential language in the master plan, a document that has been adopted by the city of Scappoose for use in its planning around the airport, has also not been communicated to the city.

'We've had no contact from the Port related to modification of the master plan,' said Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken.

The lack of a communication piece is a main criticism from Sierra Pacific officials, who have alleged that they have been left out of the loop regarding Port decisions that affect airpark residential planning.

Freeman said he has still not had the opportunity to discuss the airpark residential plans with the Port commissioners, and relations between the Port and Sierra Pacific have considerably cooled.

A phone message left for Gerry Meyer, the Port's executive director, to discuss the upcoming airpark residential hearing was not returned.

Much of the Port's increasing opposition to a residential airpark at Scappoose Industrial Airpark is being fueled by the FAA. Officials from the federal agency have stressed that residences are an incompatible use for a public airport, and that encouraging any such growth could compromise the Port's grant assurances.

Daniel Clem, director for the Oregon Department of Aviation, said the FAA's position on residential airparks is problematic on several fronts.

'I am concerned that threatening to withhold funding violates a basic axiom of the FAA, which is not to interfere with land-use access decisions,' Clem said.

Clem said he is focused on the larger picture for Oregon airports, and how those airports and the cities they are housed in want to define themselves.

By threatening to withhold funding, the FAA can pressure agencies such as the Port of St. Helens into pushing city governments, such as Scappoose, in certain directions with land-use policy. Clem believes that is construed as unwanted interference.

'By threatening to withhold funding, they are affecting land-use decisions,' he said.

Clem submitted a letter on Nov. 8 challenging the FAA's position on residential airparks, including an argument that there is no current FAA policy opposing residential airparks, and that the FAA already supports and provides funding for residential airparks at public-use airports across the nation, including in Oregon.

David Bennett, the FAA's director in the Office of Airport Safety and Standards in Washington, D.C., responded to Clem's letter, saying that federal policy is already in place discouraging residential airparks. Bennet makes no distinction between regular housing subdivisions and a residential airpark, and gives clear support for the Port to rally against such proposals.

'The FAA will continue to support the future federal funding of Scappoose Industrial Airpark by urging the Port of St. Helens Commission not to permit the penetration of its fence for access to the airfield by residents of an adjacent airpark,' Bennet wrote.

Critics of the FAA's stance argue that there is no evidence the agency has ever suspended grant dollars to an airport that allows a residential airpark.

If the city does adopt a new zone, Sierra Pacific would still have to make a successful application under that zone and would have to secure a through-the-fence permit agreement from the Port allowing residences access to the airport, an unlikely scenario at present.