Grove Field airport hovers over Camas-Washougal port contest

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoNeil Cahoon

In the August primary campaign for the No. 2 position on the Port of Camas-Washougal Board of Commissioners, the biggest disagreement among the three candidates is Grove Field airport.

Incumbent commissioner Bill Ward defends his vote against pursuing funding from the Federal Aviation Administration to improve the port-owned airport, which handles small aircraft such as single-engine Cessnas.

His opponents, Neil Cahoon and David Luse — both of whom are pilots — argue the unanimous decision by Ward and commissioners Mark Lampton and Bill Macrae-Smith was a bad call.

Ward is running for a second four-year term as a port commissioner. Cahoon and Luse, who are friends, are running for public office for the first time.

The candidates will take their differences over the airport, their contrasting professional backgrounds and their viewpoints — some shared — on several other key port issues to voters in the Aug. 16 primary election.

A two-step decision

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will face off in the Nov. 8 general election. Only the 9,398 voters who live in the port’s district No. 2, which encompasses most of Camas, may vote in the primary election.

In the November general election, all 25,207 voters who live in the port’s entire district — overseen by the port’s three-member Board of Commissioners — may cast ballots to decide the race for the No. 2 position.

Ward, Cahoon and Luse are competing for an opportunity to help guide the port during a busy time for the public agency, which voters established in 1935. The port’s board oversees a $4.4 million budget and several community assets, including a 400-acre industrial park, the 79-hangar Grove Field and a 350-slip marina.

Port commissioners receive $104 for each day they conduct port business, including attending official meetings, although the annual total cannot exceed $9,984. Additionally, each commissioner receives $350 per month.

Those who live inside the port district, and who own a home assessed at $200,000, pay about $82 in port property taxes annually. The port does not use its property-tax revenue to pay for day-to-day operations. Rather, the port spends it on infrastructure and other capital projects. Other sources of port revenue include airport and marina fees, and lease agreements with industrial tenants.

The port’s current projects include plans to redevelop the 25-acre former Hambleton Lumber Co. mill and to prepare Steigerwald Commerce Center — 120 acres of undeveloped, industrially zoned land — for development.

Airport differences

Yet controversy over Grove Field lingers. On July 19, the port’s three-member board voted unanimously against pursuing federal funding to improve the airport, which the FAA says does not meet current design standards.

Ward said there were too many risks and uncertainties in accepting federal funding for a $10 million plan to upgrade an airport that the FAA has said operates safely in its current configuration.

Grove Field wasn’t high on the list of airports to be funded, Ward said. And the port would have lost local control over the airport had it taken on FAA’s obligations, including risking the possibility of being forced to spend more money on the airport project.

Ward said the project “could obligate the taxpayers in this district to put out a lot of funds that are better directed” to other port initiatives, such as industrial land development.

Cahoon and Luse, who have argued the airport project would help the local economy, disagree.

Cahoon said it’s “somewhat unconscionable” that the elected commissioners turned down the FAA grant. “They perceived the constraints as more significant than I do,” he said. “I just think that was the wrong decision.”

Luse said the project represented a good investment, one that would have brought fees (on airplane fuel, pilots and airport users) “back to our community.”

Luse questions whether the current port commissioners, who have said they support Grove Field, just not the FAA-related plan, really want to preserve the airport. “Why would you choose to operate it and maintain it at minimum design standards?”

Backgrounds

Ward owns an engineering consulting firm in Camas. His educational background includes a master’s degree in business. He said any suggestion that he or the other commissioners intend to mothball Grove Field is an “act of desperation” to manufacture an issue “where there can’t possibly be one.”

Ward said his opponents are “interested only in the welfare of the flying community” whereas he’s running for re-election to represent the interests of all the port’s assets and constituents.

Cahoon said Grove Field isn’t the only reason he’s attempting to unseat Ward. Cahoon, who has a master’s degree in engineering, is a flight officer for Delta Air Lines. He listed his experience, including teaching math at the Air Force Academy, as proof that he would do a good job of managing the port’s different lines of business. “I have qualifications and experience that can benefit the port” on all of the projects and initiatives it manages, Cahoon said.

Luse, a former flight instructor at Grove Field who is retired from his job as a forester for the state Department of Natural Resources, said he’s not a single-issue candidate. Luse said he’s reviewed the port’s finances and is familiar with its long-term strategic plans. The port is generally doing a good job, he said, but “we could do some things better,” including beefing up public involvement in the port’s plans and budget decisions.

Some agreement

As the incumbent, Ward said, he has a record of accomplishments. Through zoning decisions, he said, he’s helped the port protect its natural and historic sites. Ward added that he’s helped make the port more open to citizens, including allowing more opportunities for public comment during the board’s regular hearings and changing the time and date of those hearings to accommodate people’s schedules.

“We have a general atmosphere now that is much more inclusive and engaging,” Ward said.

Cahoon and Luse say they support more transparency and public involvement at the port. All three candidates also agree that the new Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association — set up through a partnership between the port, and the cities of Camas and Washougal — is a good way to attract employers to the community.