AURORA, Ore. — A coalition of Oregon cities and residents is pushing back against plans to expand the Aurora State Airport south of Portland over its potential impacts to high-value farmland.
The State Aviation Board met Oct. 31 to adopt findings that the airport’s 2012 master plan complies with Marion County and statewide land-use planning goals. The master plan includes a 1,000-foot runway extension, which some farmers worry will take prime agricultural land out of production.
Opponents filed challenges with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, on Nov. 21, including the cities of Aurora and Wilsonville and Friends of French Prairie, a nonprofit group of local farmers and neighbors.
With approximately 80,000 takeoffs and landings every year, Aurora State is the fourth-busiest airport in Oregon, behind Portland International, Portland-Hillsboro and Bend. It is one mile northwest of Aurora, outside the city’s urban growth boundary.
Last year, the airport applied for a $33.3 million grant through the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the runway from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The coalition, however, argues the project would violate Oregon’s land-use planning laws by encroaching on “exclusive farm use” land.
“We deserve reasonable farmland protections that allow us to predictably use the lands we have invested in,” said Mike Iverson, who grows 200 acres of vegetables adjacent to the airport. “The boondoggle airport expansion is a nontransparent and dangerous threat to Oregon’s agricultural economy and its valued land use planning.”
Groups have previously contested the airport’s master plan, which was originally adopted in 1976. It was last updated by the State Aviation Board in 2011, but that is under challenge.
Betty Stansbury, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation, said the master plan was in fact approved in 2011, but the coalition claims that is not backed up by public records. The matter is currently before LUBA on a separate appeal.
Stansbury said the agency cannot comment on pending legal challenges.
Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp said the result is that thousands of residents were effectively shut out of public participation in talks to expand the airport.
“The city has to take action to defend our community’s ability to participate in necessary, required intergovernmental land use and transportation planning that affects our citizens’ quality of life, jointly used surface transportation facilities and other key public interest concerns,” Knapp said in a statement.
At the heart of the issue is Oregon’s statewide land use planning laws adopted in 1976 — specifically Goal 3, which established an “exclusive farm use” zone that limits development on agricultural lands.
Declining farmland continues to be an issue in Oregon, especially around the Portland metro area in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. Statewide, Oregon lost 1.7 million acres of farmland between 1997 and 2017, according to figures from the latest USDA Census of Agriculture. That’s an average of 85,000 acres, or 132.8 square miles, of farms each year.
Ben Williams, president of Friends of French Prairie, said the area is home to some of the best soils in Oregon.
“The Oregon Department of Aviation must be operating in a parallel universe — one where Oregon’s land use planning program does not apply to them, where urbanizing an area outside of an urban growth boundary, paving over irreplaceable high-value farmland and forcing farm equipment onto a four-lane highway is somehow logical,” Williams said.
Friends of French Prairie is being represented by 1000 Friends of Oregon in the LUBA appeal. Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, the working lands engagement coordinator for the organization, said Goal 3 was established to protect Oregon’s billion-dollar agricultural economy.
“Yet the Oregon Department of Aviation continues to provide sub-par evidence to justify trading our agricultural economy for a bigger airport serving luxury corporate jets,” Zimmer-Stucky said.
LUBA has not yet scheduled a hearing for the appeal. Zimmer-Stucky said she anticipates that will happen in the spring.