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On a wing and prayer, airport master plan lands


Just when everyone thought it was over, the Airport Futures process acquired a whole new set of contentious issues and angry stakeholders.

On May 25, with some debate, considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering and ultimately celebration, the Airport Futures Planning Advisory Group had unanimously endorsed a new Portland International Airport Master Plan last month, concluding two-and-a-half years of work.

The Plan is a joint effort by the Port of Portland, which owns and runs the airport, and the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. It governs the airport's operations from now until the year 2035 and sets up a series of mitigation measures the Port must perform for different levels of new developments and improvements, including traffic improvements on access roads. The Plan mandates wildlife habitat improvement on Port-owned Government Island as mitigation for development in areas that now constitute habitat. It also sets up a new monitoring body, the PDX Community Advisory Committee, which will provide a forum for public comment on airport operations.

The Plan does not specifically rule out the inclusion of a third runway, which would send aircraft directly over east Portland and have a major impact on noise. However, to establish a third runway the Port would first have to go through an extensive public review process. In any event, under current projections the Port is unlikely to seek a new runway before the year 2035, if ever.

Project staff and facilitator Sam Imperati managed to persuade each of the 29 PAG members to vote for the final Plan. Two of the strongest previous dissenters - Erwin Bergman of the Cully neighborhood and John Wiegant of the Airport Futures Round Table, a grassroots group generally critical of the airport - voted with the majority on the stipulation that they could set forth minority opinions in an appendix.

Another frequent dissenter, Bob Sallinger, was particularly upbeat about the finished product. “There were significant accomplishments in habitat restoration and some very significant precedents,” he told the Memo. “Not only was there mitigation, but it contributed to restoration.” Much of this last will take place on Government Island, which Sallinger said is “an amazing place that needs attention and is long overdue for it.”

He added, “It was a long process, at times a difficult one, but in the end we came up with a good product. There were difficult negotiations, but everyone came out smiling.”

In fact, not everyone was smiling, specifically due to the environmental content. The final draft placed new environmental restrictions not only on Port and airport property, but also on private property holdings in the east Columbia neighborhood west of the airport. It would not shut down any land use that now exists, but it would render much of it “nonconforming,” without the right for property owners to expand or re-establish themselves after a catastrophe, potentially interfering with future development plans.

A dozen people testified before the planning commission last month, most of them critical of the environmental overlay. PAG member and east Columbia resident Maryhelen Kincaid said she didn't realize the extent to which the Plan affected private properties when she voted final approval for it. On June 5, when she returned from a vacation after the city had mailed official notices to property owners, “I had 72 voice mails and more than 100 e-mails” from concerned neighbors. “I felt extremely stupid,” she said. By a quick survey, she found many of her fellow PAG members didn't realize what they'd done. She added that east Columbia is “very unique,” with farmland, golf courses and industrial uses in close proximity. “It's unlike any other [area] and needs special attention,” she said.

Tim Warren, a commercial Realtor, said that the Columbia Corridor has the largest contiguous supply of available industrial land in the state, “and the rezoning of non-Port property severely jeopardizes growth.”

Several people testified that the overlay would interfere with their development plans. Brian Kopp said that the owner of a nonconforming use is in a difficult position. “A buyer won't pay anything for land he can't use,” he said. “Expansion can't occur and it's hard to make improvements. You pay higher interest rates and insurance premiums.”

Larry Zimmer, a 26-year area resident, said he had recently purchased another acre that he intended to subdivide and develop. “I've gone through all the processes and now you've moved the goal posts,” he complained.

Several people said that existing regulations provided sufficient protection for sensitive areas such as the Columbia Slough, and that current landowners' stewardship of it had vastly improved this natural area.

The commission had expected to approve the Plan at its July 13 meeting. Virtually everyone, including Sallinger, agreed that this is not now advisable. However, Sallinger testified that he supported the Plan “in its entirety,” including the overlay. “I think the regulations make sense,” he said. “To support the slough you need to protect the banks, restore the vegetation and protect the wildlife.” With regard to “moving the goal posts” he said, “I think you need to. I don't say you can't do what you're doing now, but you have to do better in the future.”

Although he was in the minority, he had some supporters. One, Nancy Henry, said that because her home would fall under the Environmental Protection Zone under current plans, “it would have negative effects on my property values, and it would affect what I and my heirs could do with it. However, I feel in the depths of my gut and my being that this is the right thing to do.” She proceeded to describe in loving detail the variety of wildlife she sees near her home and chided her neighbors for being concerned with “short-term economic gain.” Others are worrying needlessly, she said. “There's nothing that says our rose bushes have to go away, that we can't rebuild after a fire, and even if there were, it would be worth it.”

Left unresolved is how the commission will proceed. It will hold its last hearing on July 27, after which it will be replaced with a new Planning and Sustainability commission, which will convene in October.
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