Thru-the-Fence discussion reaches Orcas Island, Washington

In a lengthy story from the August 2 edition of Islands Sounder, author Nina Laramore lays out the myriad challenges facing Orcas Island (Washington) residents, the Port of Orcas and the FAA.

Once again, the issue is related to thru-the-fence agreements. In the case of Orcas Island, there is a lengthy history surrounding the airport and how there came to be 26 residential lots adjoining the airport property.

Following are two of many intriguing comments from the story:

“They [FAA] just say ‘you need to satisfy us,’ [Commissioner Ulanah] 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 hangers and homes adjoining airport hangers. If we do what they want it’s a taking of property.”

And this:

“It is now a national effort out of FAA headquarters,” [FAA Civil Engineer responsible for the Port of Orcas, Timothy] 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.”

Be sure to click through and read the complete story at the Islands Sounder and sound off both at its website, and ours in the comment section.

2 replies on “Thru-the-Fence discussion reaches Orcas Island, Washington”

To give you a little more background the Port of Orcas was formed by a vote of the residents of Orcas Island in 1958. The reason the referendum to create the Port passed so easily was because the gentleman that owned the private airfield (Capt. Ferris) had offered to sell the property to the public for a token amount but he insisted that his heirs would have access rights to the runway. The original parcel that included the airfield was about 35 acres and surrounded on 3 sides by another 170 acres still owned by Capt. Ferris. When voting was done and the Port district was created, all that land was granted access rights. The “rights” are documented as an amendment to the property deeds with San Juan County. When Capt. Ferris died in the mid 1960’s his heirs broke up the land and sold it over a period of 20 years. During that time the Port acquired another 20 acres but the remaining land that was originally owned by Capt. Ferris is now owned by approximately 30 different individuals. All of them still have deeded access to the runway.

In the mid 80’s the Port applied for FAA funds for the first time. The FAA reviewed the situation and found that it violated their “through the fence” policy, but recognized that the airport would not exist without the original deal between the voters and Capt. Ferris. So funding was granted and everyone was happy for about 8 years. Then after long enough that everyone at the FAA had forgotten that they had previously approved the situation at Orcas they started pressuring the Port to charge the “though the fence” operators an access fee. The rule quoted as to why the fee was needed is clearly related to preventing unfair completive advantage to TTF commercial operators verses on the field commercial operators. The rules does not address privately owned and operated aircraft in any way. Since the Port doesn’t charge GA aircraft landing fees and there are virtually no commercial operations that cross the property line the Port has successfully fought off the FAA until now.

In May of this year the FAA changed their demand and now insist that the “though the fence” operators must pay the same fee that the port charges for an annual tie-down (about $320/ year). And to back up the threat they are withholding dispersing funds for a storm water drainage project that the work is already done and had been previously approved. And the FAA has also tabled the Port’ application for runway resurfacing scheduled for 2011.

This issue has come up about every 2 to 4 years and always ended with the Port proving to the FAA that there is no TTF operators gaining an unfair advantage. But every time is comes up there is another round of public meetings and a lot of nasty finger pointing. I was chairman of the Port Commission the last time the FAA brought the subject up in the summer of 2007. The animosity and anger it caused between the Port and its neighbors is the reason I did NOT run for reelection.

I do not know what will happen. If the Port implements a TTF fee, the affected property owners (which include several of the richest men in the state) will definitely take both the Port and the FAA to court. They feel that since their deeded right of access superseded the FAA’s involvement in the Port by more than 25 years and the FAA originally acknowledged their right of access they will win easily. The FAA has already told the Port they will NOT cover any of the Port’s legal expenses. One suggestion was to ask the property owners to extinguish the access rights themselves. But realistically the only way that will happen is if they get paid for what they see as a loss in value of their property. The property involved is some of the most expensive in the state easily selling for in excess of $200K per acre for undeveloped land. So purchasing the property is beyond the Port’s and the FAA means as is purchasing the right of access. There are a lot of ideas being batted about, but the main thing is that the property owners are mad and they have the depth of pockets to fight anything the FAA and the Port try to do that they don’t like. And once again the FAA has created a situation of ill will between the airport and its neighbors.

John Becker

Former Commissioner and Chairman of the Port of Orcas.

As an incidental to John Becker’s comments above.
In 2002 the Airport Property Owners agreed to soothe the FAA in ref their need for security.
Agreed to assign an easement to construct and access a fence surrounding the airport property owners, indeed also the port assigned indemnity to the property owners. This existing agreement holds the Port to the Owners including representation.
As it stand the Orcas Port is in conflict (legally) should they even attempt to represent the current demands of the FAA.

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