C-W port passes on airport upgrade

Commissioners cite FAA requirements, will not pursue grant

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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The Port of Camas-Washougal will not pursue a $10 million plan to improve Grove Field, the port’s Board of Commissioners decided unanimously on Tuesday.

The three-member board’s decision means the port won’t seek an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to accept the FAA’s funding and rules to boost safety at the airport and to increase the airport’s role as an economic resource.

Instead, the three elected commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution stating it’s not in the port’s best interest to put Grove Field under FAA requirements. Those complex requirements would entail a loss of control over the airport, a considerable financial commitment and other risks, according to the resolution.

Citing FAA and other aviation-related data showing annual declines in general aviation activity, Commissioner Mark Lampton said those numbers don’t justify making such a large investment of tax dollars in rebuilding the airport.

“It flies in the face of fiscal responsibility,” Lampton said.

Mark Paras, a former port commissioner who attended Tuesday’s public hearing, disputed the numbers presented by Lampton. Paras said there are no empty hangars at Grove Field. Likewise, the hangars at other airports in the region are nearly full.

The general aviation data “don’t jibe with what’s going on locally,” Paras said.

The port board’s decision on Tuesday capped a long-running debate over the future of Grove Field, which handles small aircraft, such as single-engine Cessnas.

It also came after the board recently received the final documents assessing the environmental impacts of the Camas airport project. Those documents found the proposed airport improvements, including building a longer and wider runway, would not significantly harm the environment.

At issue was whether the port should expand an airport that was built 65 years ago. The proposal considered by the port’s board included reconstructing a portion of Delp Road into a tunnel that would pass under a longer and wider runway.

FAA grant money would cover most of the estimated $10 million cost of rebuilding Grove Field.

But Commissioner Bill Ward said there were too many risks involved, based on recent discussions the port had with the FAA. If the port agreed to take the FAA funding, Ward said, it would risk losing local control over Grove Field for an unlimited amount of time.

Moreover, Ward said, the funding isn’t guaranteed because it would require congressional approval and Grove Field isn’t high on the list of airports to receive funding.

Grove Field has several design problems, according to the FAA’s final environmental assessment. The width of the airport’s runway, for example, is 40 feet. The standard is 60 feet. The FAA recommends a runway length of 3,070 feet. The length of Grove Field’s runway is 2,620 feet.

While the airport, which was built in 1946, has 79 hangars, 21 tie-down spaces and a modernized fueling station, it “operates below FAA minimum safety standards and generally lacks up-to-date facilities,” according to the environmental assessment.

Commissioner Bill Macrae-Smith said Tuesday the port has a letter from the FAA saying the airport is safe in its current configuration.

The issue of whether to rebuild Grove Field intensified in December 2009. That’s when the port’s board voted 2-1 to move ahead with plans to improve the airport. But that was before two new commissioners – Lampton and Macrae-Smith — joined the three-member board in January 2010. Ward, who’s up for re-election this year, cast the dissenting vote in December 2009.

More than 30 people attended the session but only Paras and one other man spoke about the Grove Field proposal.