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Rural Oregon airport expansion clears legal hurdle

Farmland conservation advocates have failed to convince an Oregon land use board to block a controversial rural airport expansion plan but vow to continue fighting the project.

The state’s Land Use Board of Appeals has dismissed objections against a planned runway extension and other improvements to the Aurora State Airport, which 1,000 Friends of Oregon and other critics claim will urbanize an agricultural area.

Opponents of the project may still decide to challenge LUBA’s decision before the Oregon Court of Appeals or move forward with a parallel lawsuit against the expansion project in Marion County Circuit Court.

According to LUBA, the Oregon Department of Aviation wasn’t required to independently analyze the airport project’s compliance with statewide land use planning goals as long as the expansion followed Marion County’s comprehensive plan.

“Requiring a separate determination of compliance with both the comprehensive plan and the goals would create an uncoordinated regulatory scheme that could apply different standards to identical issues,” LUBA said.

The airport’s expansion is not incompatible with Marion County’s agricultural lands policies because it’s not clear that the project plan calls for improvements that would extend outside the “public” zone and into the “exclusive farm use” zone, the ruling said.

About 55 acres proposed for acquisition by the airport would remain farmland even though they’d be included in a runway protection zone, and it’s “just speculation” that other components would be located on farmland, LUBA said.

LUBA also rejected the argument that the airport expansion will significantly affect land use because the project plan “does not approve or authorize any development” and does “not change the status quo,” the ruling said.

Andrew Mulkey, attorney for 1,000 Friends of Oregon, said the airport’s preferred alternative for expansion clearly shows that new construction would occur beyond a road that separates the public zone from the farm zone.

“I think that LUBA’s interpretation is not supported by the documents in the record,” he said.

If the project’s opponents decide against appealing LUBA’s decision — or it’s upheld on appeal — they’d then proceed with a lawsuit in Marion County that alleges the public process for the airport expansion plan violated the state’s Administrative Procedures Act, Mulkey said.

The Aurora Airport Improvement Association, a group of business that supports the expansion, is pleased that LUBA has made clear the project complies with all state and local land use rules, said Wendie Kellington, its attorney.

“Too bad it took so much time and money to establish,” Kellington said.

Opponents have relied on a “false narrative” that the runway extension would spill onto farmland, while the runway protection zone would actually ensure the land remained agricultural in perpetuity, she said. “That’s completely consistent with EFU zoning.”

A utility facility that may have been placed on farmland has likely been rendered obsolete by improvements to aviation technology, Kellington said. “That’s not even going to happen.”

The next step in the expansion will involve an environmental analysis to qualify for federal funding, as well as a conditional use permit for the runway extension within the public zone, she said. The project should not have trouble meeting those standards.

“All of its impacts have been pretty well vetted up to this point,” Kellington said.