Port master plan prompts public outcry

The public comment period for Orcas Airport’s possible expansion has been extended after community concerns regarding lack of transparency.

Feedback on the Port of Orcas’ Master Plan will now be accepted until Aug. 3 instead of its original July 13 deadline. The port began drafting its 20-year master plan in September 2017 and is projected to conclude the document in March 2019.

“This is a planning process, and it examines where the airport is today and what the airport needs to be in the future based on projections and what the expectation is for the needs of the community and the airport and the aircraft that use it,” Port Manager Tony Simpson said. “We’re kind of in a unique situation because the airport already doesn’t meet the needs of its existing users – at least according to FAA standards.”

Simpson said the port will host a special public meeting to hear concerns and answer questions about the master plan at 3:30 p.m. on July 26 at the Eastsound Fire Station. For more information about the project or to comment, visit http://www.portoforcas.com/master-plan/.

The master plan is a Federal Aviation Administration requirement that is reviewed every five to 10 years; the last update for Orcas came in 2008.

The airport, currently deemed a B1 airport, is likely to be recategorized as a B2 airport, requiring a runway width expansion but not lengthening. Airport size categories are dependent on the size of aircraft the facility accommodates. Because the Port of Orcas gets many Cessna Caravans – like those owned and operated by Kenmore Air and FedEx – it will need to be retrofitted to suit its purpose.

“What we’re trying to do is investigate the full spectrum of possibilities,” Simpson said. “From doing absolutely nothing – which is probably a nonstarter if we want any FAA funding because they’ll want to see us do something to try and get closer to the standard. And then at the other end is do everything to achieve full compliance with the standard. I think myself and the port commissioners already view (full compliance) as unrealistic. But we need to examine it because that’s what the FAA directs us to do when we do a planning process. We need to look at the full spectrum alternatives.”

Alaska-based civil engineering company Dowl was tasked with composing the master plan for the port. In January, Project Manager Leah Henderson led an open house to elicit community feedback regarding the airport’s future. There was a second meeting in June wherein Henderson updated the community on the plan’s progress.

Options presented by Dowl include four changes for the runway, four for the taxiway, development alternatives to the southeast and west and runway protection zone (RPZ) adjustments.

Concerns arose in the community when the airport’s “expansion” was brought up in a group on Facebook. People said they hadn’t heard of the port’s intentions and suspected that the port was not being forthcoming about its plans.

“We certainly are not trying to do anything in secret,” Simpson said. “This is a public process, we want public input. … All of that stuff is meant to be done as transparently as possible.”

With the exception of the “no build” alternative, which would be the port opting to not make any changes to the current configuration, the master plan would include relocating Mt. Baker Road. The road currently exists within the RPZ, which is something the FAA is opposed to, said Simpson.

“Ideally, even if we did nothing with the runway, we would like to move Mt. Baker Road out of the runway protection zone,” Simpson said. “It’s called the runway protection zone for a reason. It’s to protect the runway approach and departure.”

Simpson said that he knows of at least one incident where a landing plane caused a dent in a pickup that was being driven on Mt. Baker Road. Though all the options except for “no build” would require relocating the road, Simpson said the purpose of the move would be to clear the pathway for the RPZ, not to lengthen the runway as some community members fear would happen.

“I can absolutely guarantee you that once I get the road out of the RPZ (the FAA) would never, never tolerate me putting it back in the RPZ. That would occur if I tried to make the runway longer after I move Mt. Baker Road,” Simpson said.

Another concern expressed in the Facebook group included the airport encroaching on the western side of Brant’s Landing, the only marina on the north end of the island. Because of the marine environment in which the landing resides, any expansion into that area would likely require a state or federal environmental impact study. Additionally, the port would have to buy the property from the current owners.

“It’ll be very difficult to justify doing anything with Brandt’s Landing. Nobody among the port commissioners and myself has any taste or desire to do eminent domain,” Simpson said. “This will never progress beyond, probably, the idea stage. … So, we’re probably not going to try to go to full taxiway separation which means we’re probably going to stay away from Brandt’s Landing”

Simpson said that the concerns of the community aren’t undue but it’s highly unlikely any big changes will be coming to the port any time soon – for at least 10 years or so. The master plan is more a formality to show the FAA that the port has intentions to do what is needed to make it more compliant with the safety standards.

Conforming to the FAA standards is a contingency to continued funding from the federal entity. However, community members have questioned why the port needs the FAA funding at all. According to Simpson, the port’s taxing authority brings in $220,000 annually, which would not be enough to pay for a $20-$30 million runway replacement should the existing one need repairing.

“I wouldn’t want to ask the taxpayers of Orcas Island to do that when there is an established federal and state program that will pay for 90 to 95 percent of this as long as we are doing things that are modestly moving in the direction of achieving the safety standard of the aircraft that are using the airport today,” Simpson said. “So we want to try to achieve the standards as much as we can, or to a level that can satisfy to (the FAA) that we’re making good faith efforts to meet the safety standards … Aviation here in the Northwest is really strong, and it continues to grow. Because of the fact that we’re on an island and we’re separated by water, aviation still has a strong role to play here.”