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Airport fight may have rough landing


Hillsboro group pushes for changes as port considers options

by: COURTESY: PORT OF PORTLAND - Aerial view of the Hillsboro Airport showing its two runways.Despite its name, Oregon Aviation Watch is not watching aviation throughout the state. The tiny nonprofit organization is watching the Hillsboro Airport, and it doesn’t like what it sees.

For the past few years, President Miki Barnes and Vice President Jim Lubisher have repeatedly testified against airport operations and plans before numerous public bodies, including the Hillsboro City Council and the Hillsboro Airport Issue Roundtable. Among other things, they have complained about noise and air pollution generated by Hillsboro Aviation, the flight training school based at the airport. They have also called the airport a security threat in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and have opposed spending federal money collected from commercial airlines there because it offers no commercial services.

Asked what changes would satisfy all of their concerns by the Hillsboro Tribune, Barnes and Lubisher both said it should be shut down.

“It’s just the wrong location for an airport,” says Barnes.

“I just don’t see what good purpose it serves,” said Lubisher.

The small general aviation airport is owned by the Port of Portland, and officials there strongly disagree. They say it is a valuable asset for Hillsboro and nearby communities, generating more than $75 million in economic activity in 2011 alone.

Bill Wyatt, the port’s executive director, says there are no plans to curtail airport operations, including the flight school based there. In fact, the port plans to build a third runway at the airport that would be primarily used by the flight school to free the existing two runways for other aircraft.

“The Hillsboro Airport is good for Hillsboro and contributes to the regional economy,” says Wyatt.

Westside business leaders agree. The Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce has adopted a statement supporting the continued operation of the airport every year since 2004. Pam Treece, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, says her organization considers it a critical transportation link and economic development tool. And Intel, which has a small fleet of shuttle jets based at the airport, says it is vital to the company’s U.S. operations.

The third runway plan is on hold, however, because of Oregon Aviation Watch. Despite its diminutive size — it has no members — the group has been surprisingly successful at thwarting future plans for the airport. After it challenged the third runway plan in federal court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent it back to the Federal Aviation Administration for further study. The group also convinced the Land Use Board of Appeals to send Hillsboro’s proposed master plan for the airport back to the city. And it recently mounted a LUBA appeal against the council’s decision to remove language allowing the city to regulate airport operations from the City Code.

But these victories may be only temporary. Port officials expect the FAA to complete its additional work early this year, and which point the plan will head back to the court. City planners are also expected to revise the master plan to comply with the LUBA this year, and send it back to the council which has already approved it. And LUBA has not yet decided whether to accept the appeal on the code revision.

Corporate fleets

The Hillsboro Airport is on approximately 950 acres near the Washington County Fairgrounds and Hillsboro Public Library. It is bordered by Northwest Evergreen Road, Northeast 25th Avenue, Northeast Cornell Road, Northeast Brookwood Parkway and Northwest Airport Road.

The airport was established by Dr. Elmer Smith in 1928. The Port of Portland took over the operations in 1966. The port also operates Portland International Airport and the Troutdale Airport, which is the smallest of the three.

According to the port, the Hillsboro Airport is the second busiest airport in the state. It has an FAA tower, an instrument landing system and two runways. One is 6,600 feet long and the other is 4,049 feet long. Wind conditions determine which one is used. Approximately 278 aircraft are based at the Hillsboro Airport.

More than 25 businesses operate at the Hillsboro Airport. In addition to the flight training school, they include local corporate flight departments, a corporate air shuttle service, aircraft charter services for business travel, air ambulance services, TV news helicopters, aircraft maintenance and repair operations and an on-call Customs and Border Protection office for international flights.

Among the businesses is Intel, which has a small corporate fleet there.

In February 2011, the port issued a report on the economic impacts of the airport on Hillsboro and the surrounding region, including Portland and Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Clark and Skamania counties. It concluded the airport generated 1,199 direct, included and indirect jobs in the region. They included 436 direct jobs at the airport and 169 direct jobs in the visitor industry.

According to the study, the airport generated $75.7 million in business activity, $60.9 million of direct personal income and $5.6 million in state and local taxes in 2011. It also saved Hillsboro businesses $5.5 million in “time of travel costs” instead of using Portland International Airport, 32 miles away and accessible only from roads that heavily congested during peak travel times.

Residential neighborhoods and business areas have grown up on three sides of the airport. Port officials say they have worked closely with the FAA to ensure the flight paths do not violate federal noise restrictions. Nevertheless, numerous residents have complained about noise for years, particularly about the aircraft and helicopters operated by the training school.

The Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce admits the encroaching growth has created friction for years. Its annual statement calls on the port and city to continuously work to minimize the conflicts with nearby residents and businesses.

Noise and pollution

Barnes and Lubisher both say they first became aware of the problems posed by the airport because of the noise from the flight training school. Barnes said she was living in the Cedar Mills area when aircraft from the school first began to bother her. She subsequently moved to the Banks area, but says the aircraft create noise at her home there, too. Lubisher says he has lived approximately 1 and 1/2 miles from the airport for around 20 years and has been bothered by noise from the training flights the entire time.

Barnes and Lubisher say that while trying to learn the source of the noise, they discovered the flight training school at Hillsboro Airport and became aware of other issue related to the airport as well. Many of these issues are summarized on the organization’s website, oregonaviationwatch.org. They include pollution from leaded aviation fuel used by the school’s aircraft. Although the Oregon Department of Environmental says the amount is below federal standards, Lubisher, a pediatrician, says no amount is safe.

The website also includes links to documents on the legal challenge mounted by Barnes and others against future plans for the airport. They include an Aug. 26, 2011, ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals directing the Federal Aviation Administration to study whether adding a third runway will increase business enough at the airport to produce unforeseen problems. Also included is a Nov. 24, 2010, ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals upholding an earlier state Land Use Board of Appeals decision that Hillsboro’s proposed master plan for the airport cannot bind future City Council’s to it.

The rulings have temporarily stopped planning the third runway and the adoption of the master plan. Port officials expect the FAA and city to move them forward again this year. Lubisher says OAW may appeal both of them again, depending on the legal issues raised by the changes.

More recently, OAW has filed a LUBA appeal on the council’s recent decision to remove language from the City Code allowing it to regulate the airport. City officials say the issue came up during a comprehensive review of the code for outdated language, not at the request of the port.

The City Attorney’s Office advised the council that federal law has given the FAA preemptive authority over airports. The council approved removing the language as part of a consent agenda item without taking public testimony. OWA appealed the vote to LUBA, arguing that it was a land use matter that required a public hearing. LUBA has not yet said whether it will accept the appeal.

Criticism puzzles Hillsboro Aviation owner

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A commuter jet parked in front of a Hillsboro Aviation building at the Hillsboro Airport.

Hillsboro Aviation owner Max Lyons is reluctant to discuss the criticisms leveled at his company.

Seated in his office at the Hillsboro Airport, Lyons says he believes the 32-year-old company benefits the city and surrounding region, providing around 225 jobs and supporting numerous other businesses in the area.

“Hillsboro Aviation is an asset to this community,” says Lyons.

Lyons says that Hillsboro Aviation is one of the few companies he knows that actually grew during the recent recession that is still being felt. Most of the growth occurred outside the flight school, including avionics, flight charters, aircraft sales and aircraft maintenance and customization. The company’s finances are so integrated it would be impossible to separate out and either move or end the flight school as some have suggested, however.

The company was founded in 1980 as a one-helicopter flight school called Hillsboro Helicopters. Lyons first came there a few years later after working in logging and construction.

He began by taking helicopter flying lessons and then became an instructor, where he met Ed Cooley, the former chief executive officer and chairman of Precision Castparts, the Southeast Portland high-tech manufacturing company.

Cooley bought the company in 1992 and hired Lyons as vice president for operations. In 1996, the company changed its name to Hillsboro Aviation to better reflect its expanding services. Lyons bought Cooley out in 1999 and became the company’s president and CEO.

Lyons remembers that when he first came to the company, the airport was mostly surrounded by farmland. Intel’s Ronler Acres Campus did not exist and there was little nearby residential housing. State, county and city officials actively pursued the high-tech businesses that have transformed Hillsboro from an agricultural community to state’s economic engine.

As Hillsboro grew, Lyons says he and a number of other airport-based business owners worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and city officials to minimize the inevitable noise complaints. Flight paths were changed, the city adopted more substantial insulation standards for the encroaching housing, and real estate agents were required to tell potential buyers about their proximity to the airport.

Despite that, some residents have tried to change Hillsboro Aviation’s operations. The most current vocal group is Oregon Aviation Watch. Lyons is puzzled by the group’s complaints that many of the flight students are foreign, with a large percentage coming from China. Most foreign pilots train in the United States, Lyons says, and Oregon has long marketed itself as the gateway to the Asia Pacific.

“It is estimated that 31 percent of aviation growth over the next 25 years will be in Asia. We should position ourselves to take advantage of that,” Lyons says.

Although he would not discuss specific numbers, Lyons says Hillsboro Aviation has made a huge investment in Hillsboro. He plans to leave the flight school at its current size and expand the company’s other operations in coming years.