Port’s “Through the Fence” issue could affect entire Orcas community
August 4, 2009 · Updated 1:06 PM
By NINA LARAMORE
It’s a complicated issue. Even its name does not really enlighten: “Through the Fence Issue.” So far, meetings have not been well attended by the Orcas community, other than by pilots and adjacent property owners.
But the decision made could affect the entire Orcas Island community, not just pilots and property owners whose land borders the Port of Orcas.
The commissioners see only two options. They either do what the FAA wants and fence people out by enacting eminent domain or they just say, “no.”
“If we say, ‘No, we won’t and this is wrong’ to the FAA then we have to give up the FAA money for land purchase and capital improvements,” Commissioner Ulanah McCoy said. “If the port decides to make a go of it without the FAA money, then it could mean higher taxes for all Orcas taxpayers. At this point, some commissioners are on one side and some on the other.”
Currently more than 26 private properties next to the airport have special access. They can keep their airplanes on their property, and they are not paying tie down or hangar rent fees to the port. The original landowner, who deeded the land to the port in 1959, granted unrestricted rights in the deeds. The owners do pay additional tax dollars for their special access, but it’s a minimal amount. Other people lease tie down spaces on the ramp or own hangars and pay lease rates and leasehold taxes.
McCoy says that the commissioners believe the FAA wants the property owners’ agreements terminated or bought out, and no new easements granted. The port commissioners could do that by exercising eminent domain and taking easement access rights from the homeowner’s deeds.
“The commissioners could also buy out properties as they came on the market, remove access rights and then resell the properties without the access or some provision thereof,” Port Manager Bea vonTobel said. “No one wishes to use eminent domain because of extreme legal costs and bad will associated with such actions.”
One of those landowners is former American Airlines pilot, and now private pilot, Bob Waunch. He also sees the choices as either “staying under the thumb of the FAA” or going on without them. He says that most pilots would prefer to see no FAA involvement in the airport. He does not believe that taxes would need to be raised if the port would just take all they are currently allowed. The port takes only 40 percent of the taxes they could take.
“For them to take their full tax rate is important,” Waunch said. “Everyone on this island needs this airport. Package delivery here is a major thing, all the contractors get their supplies through the airport and the then there is the medical use. If the port and not the FAA were controlling things they could put non-aviation businesses on the land and raise additional funds.”
There have been meetings to discuss the issue, but McCoy wants the entire community to be aware of the decision that is being debated and how it will affect them.
“Is this community willing to support this airport without FAA funds?” McCoy said. “What that means is when we do capital improvement projects the FAA currently pays for 95 percent of the costs. Those costs vary from year-to-year but some years we have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the FAA.”
The FAA has given $2,000,000 to the port since 1991.
Complicating the issue even more is that the commissioners don’t think they really know what solution will make the FAA content. The FAA is not providing guidance on what to put in the Through the Fence plan, how to formulate it or how to enforce it according to McCoy.
“They just say ‘you need to satisfy us,’ McCoy said. “At first we thought they would be satisfied with charging a fee for airport users that live outside the boundary that have direct access to the runway. But now it appears what they really want is to completely extinguish all access by private property owners with hangars and homes adjoining airport hangars. If we do what they want it’s a taking of property.”
What the FAA wants
The FAA Civil Engineer responsible for the Port of Orcas, Timothy Shaw is clear about what he wants in the Through the Fence plan.
“We are only asking them to do what they can,” Shaw said. “We want some small changes. We recognize they cannot terminate those easements. The first thing we want is for them to not allow any additional access rights. Then we want them to collect fees from the homes that currently have access, and for those pilots to adhere to the minimal airport standards. I don’t have the final say in this, but I think that would do it. We want to see money from the pilots going to support the airport instead of money from the tax district.”
Shaw says that they would like the port to purchase any homes that come available, with the aid of FAA money, in years when they have no capital improvements.
“We absolutely do not expect those easements to go away immediately, and we are not asking them to do that,” he said. “In an undefined future time, we would like to see those homes purchased by the airport. We would never encourage eminent domain.”
Waunch has no problem with two of the three things the FAA wants, but distrusts the FAA to adhere to any agreement on additional fees.
“Once the camel gets its nose under the tent there is no control over what it will want,” he said. “If the port or the FAA came up with a rock solid percentage of something, that would never change, and they could get something contractually that some attorney could not shoot a hole through, then the pilots would probably agree.”
Waunch also points out that the money from the FAA is given to them through Congress from taxes on aviation fuel.
This is not the first time the issue has been raised by the FAA. The storm of disagreement has swirled up about every two years, or four times in the past eight years. Two years ago, then commissioner Jack Becker wrote a detailed letter to the FAA outlining the commissioners’ point of view and saying that things were fine the way the were. The FAA didn’t respond to the letter. Every year the port applied for grant money and it was granted. But this year the FAA was more adamant about eliminating access and said there would be no more money unless the port came up with a Through the Fence plan.
“It is now a national effort out of FAA headquarters,” Shaw said. “They sent guidance to all the field offices saying the opposition policy really wasn’t getting any reaction. It’s not an Orcas issue. It’s a national issue. We are having more and more residential airparks, and homes and airports are just not compatible.”
McCoy said the neighbors provide a 24-hour presence, watch what is going on, and don’t complain about airport noise.
“They say that not fencing the people out is incompatible port land usage and diminishes control of who is accessing the airport land,” McCoy said. “From our point of view, these reasons don’t make sense. These are the best neighbors that the airport could have.”
She says that the neighbors are just as concerned about safety as the commissioners are and that fencing them out would not stop any potential activities on the port land.
“We don’t deny that,” Shaw said. “Pilots are not the problem, but the FAA does have a problem with not treating all homeowners the same. For an airport to be successful, they need to have local zoning that is compatible. Overlay districts are important to airport safety and Orcas already has a hole in the Overlay.”
The Airport Overlay Zone is intended to minimize potential dangers from, and conflicts with, the use of aircraft at public airports. Eastsound established an Overlay in 2002, reaching a compromise with those with property around the airport.
One of the adjacent properties is currently trying to make the Overlay hole even bigger by getting the county to grant an exception that will allow them to divide two lots into three for further development, and the FAA does have a problem with that further erosion of the airport zoning. The commissioners have not supported that property owner and have written a letter to the county asking them not to grant it.
The deadline for applying for grant money for the year has passed. The port has completed engineering plans to have the runway resurfaced, and most of that work has already been done. The current FAA grant will cover that work. Future grant money is in jeopardy if a plan is not provided. If the port stops taking money from the FAA they still have to follow the stipulations attached to the money they have already taken for 20 years.
“I would really encourage everyone out there to call us, come to the next meeting, e-mail us, and let us know what they think about being a community-funded airport,” McCoy said. “It would probably mean higher taxes and more user fees and hopefully more volunteer projects as well. The airport serves all of us, and we need to know what the community wants to do.”
The date of the next meeting is Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Port of Orcas office.