Ambitious Plan Calls for $10-Million Upgrade to Camas, Wash., Airport

Sep. 12--CAMAS, Wash. -- Grove Field, a general aviation airport in Camas, would undergo $10.5 million in upgrades outlined in a preliminary 20-year master plan that also includes a controversial proposal to relocate a nearby 57-lot mobile home park.

Conceived by a local advisory committee working for the Port of Camas-Washougal, which owns Grove Field, the draft recommendations come from a Federal Aviation Administration-funded study. Already, the recommendations have created a divide between supporters of airport upgrades and nearby residents, including people living in Oak Meadows Mobile Home Park, who could be forced to move if the changes are adopted.

The proposal comes as Clark County is about to lose Evergreen Airport in east Vancouver to a $170 million mixed-use development. The only other general aviation airport in Clark County is Pearson Field, but there are limits on its use under an agreement with the National Park Service, which owns part of the site.

In a county that once had a half-dozen public-use airports, the diminished facilities are a matter of concern. The area is considered a stronghold for aviation because of its convenience to the Portland metropolitan area and attractiveness to recreational pilots.

The advisory committees master-plan recommendations will be the topic of a public meeting beginning at 7 p.m., Sept. 21, at Camas High School theater. No decisions will be made. Port Executive Director Sheldon Tyler said no timetable has been set for port commissioners to act on the recommendations.

Grove Field, with about 50 acres on the west side of Northeast 267th Avenue in Camas, operates as a general aviation airport under the ports authority. With 79 hangars and four tie-downs, it is used by private pilots, most of whom are recreational fliers, as opposed to pilots flying commercial aircraft or corporate jets. The port maintains that on that basis, it is safe.

Jim Gray, whose term as president of the 75-member Camas-Washougal Aviation Association just ended, sees the proposed changes as making the operation safer.

The draft changes would bring the airport up to minimum FAA safety standards, if the port district opts to pursue agency funding for upgrades. FAA funding could pay for 95 percent of the improvements, with the rest to be shared by the state and the local port district. But some opponents fear the changes would open the door to bigger, noisier planes and more air traffic. The Washington Department of Transportations Aviation Division estimated that in 2002, there were 7,000 flights through Grove Field.

Changes under consideration:

--Extend the runway 350 feet, to 2,970 feet, to accommodate the majority of small aircraft with fewer than 10 passenger seats.
--Either relocate Delp Road west of the proposed runway extension area, or tunnel a portion of it through the extended runway and taxiways.
--Shift the runways alignment slightly south to attain the FAAs required 150-foot distance between it and the taxiway. Also, widen the runway by 20 feet, from 40 feet to the FAAs recommended 60 feet.
--With the other runway changes, increase the pavements weight-bearing strength to 12,500 pounds to meet the FAAs guideline for small aircraft.
--Increase the easement the port holds on the north taxiway to 25 feet, from 20 feet, to meet FAA design standards. Also the FAA has requested a southern parallel taxiway be provided for, since most of the airplane movement takes place on that side.
--Build three new buildings: a 20-by-20-foot pilots lounge east of the fuel tank, a 50-by-50-foot hangar building that could be used for maintenance or other aviation activities, and a 60-by-100-foot specialty shop that would be south of the new hangar building.

The acquisition of Oak Meadows Mobile Home Park, which also includes 14 recreational-vehicle lots, is foremost on the committees list of needed changes, with airplanes clearing it by just 20 to 25 feet, said Paul Cannon, a non-pilot resident of the area who chairs the Grove Field Airport Advisory Committee. The mobile home park is within a designated Grove Field protection zone.

It is meant to serve as a safety zone as pilots take off or land on the nearby runway.

Even if FAA paid the expense of relocating the park, that wouldnt solve everything.

Ed and Darlene West live in a 1984-vintage home that is not as stable as it was when first erected.

"We didnt plan on moving," Darlene West said. "I cant afford to move, but even if we could, I am not sure (the house) would stand up to a move."

They are among the luckier residents. Many of their neighbors live in mobile homes that are considerably older, some, with noticeably brittle and corroded siding.

Then, there are retirees Gary and LaVonne Horton, who moved in six months ago from Goldendale and have spent some $6,500 on setting up their manufactured home, complete with added comforts. He recently finished building a covered front porch. The Hortons, too, have counted on staying at the park.

Cannon, whose committee has worked with W&H Pacific consultants of Portland on the draft plan, said that acquisition of the park is only second or third on the FAAs list behind lengthening the runway. As an advisory committee member who lives near the airport, he shares in the concerns over what could accompany change.

"We have never received any money from the FAA," Cannon said. "If we do, we are committed to FAA, and for the life of this project, we have to abide by FAA rules, which in some ways, takes the (airports operation) out of the (port) commissioners hands and puts it into the hands of the FAA."

But Cannon said there is no certainty that the community would go the FAA route in pursuing future upgrades.

He has concerns about any changes that could open the airport to wider use. With Evergreens imminent closing -- no closing date has been announced -- he said that many displaced pilots will want to be based at Grove Field, where there already is a waiting list.

"I am for keeping (the airport) like it is, and I think the majority of us would like to keep it for Camas-Washougal residents," he said.

While the airport last year generated $204,465, it incurred a loss of $121,612, at least on paper. The latter included the airports share of port expenses, which would not be erased even if Grove Field ceased to operate.

Advisory committee member Jim Ludwig, a longtime pilot who makes good use of the facilities, is a supporter of upgrades.

"You cant expect the airport to be the only area of the community that will not grow," he said.

Of the draft upgrades, he says, "I think it is a good beginning. I am not wholeheartedly behind the details of the plan, but I am wholeheartedly behind the plan."

He is among those who dismiss as highly unlikely fears of some that upgrades would lead to a notably larger airport that would enable corporate jets and commuter aircraft to land.

First, he and others cite the proximity to Portland International Airport, just across the Columbia River, and the fact that larger craft would interfere with PDXs airspace -- a situation that FAA would not allow. Secondly, they cite Grove Fields terrain, which drops off on the west end; tightly constricted setbacks; and the fact that it is not equipped for flights when weather conditions limit visibility.

Port Commissioner Jim Carroll said that ultimately the commissioners will need to strike a balance between supporters of the airport improvements and all voters in the port district.

"A lot of people say they would rather have an airport than a subdivision," he said.

On the other hand, if FAA funding is pursued, "how much control does the FAA have in telling us what to do?" he ponders.

In the end, though, the issue may be resolved by something more fundamental.

As Paul Cannon said, "This is not a plan to do anything. This is a plan to say what we might look like in 20 years if we get the federal money. When we get this study done, there may not be any federal money left to do it."