Court of appeals ruling on Aurora Airport supports farmland protection

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled today that the Oregon Aviation Board’s plan to expand the Aurora Airport onto farmland must comply with state land use laws. The ruling reverses and remands an earlier Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) order favoring the aviation board. LUBA will now use the Court of Appeals’ guidance to review the aviation board’s decision to extend the runway onto farmland.

Simply put: Oregon’s land use laws protect farmland and rural lands from the expansion of urban uses (airports accommodating large airplanes). 

Given all of the procedural hurdles that the aviation board put in front of petitioners — 1000 Friends of Oregon, Friends of French Prairie, Joseph Schaefer, the City of Aurora, and the City of Wilsonville — today’s ruling is a huge win for transparency in agency decision making in the land use context. Throughout the local proceedings, the aviation board went to great lengths to avoid public review of its decision, even claiming that it had adopted the airport master plan more than eight years earlier, but never told the public about it. The Court of Appeals’ ruling today requires LUBA to properly review the agency’s adoption of the airport master plan for the Aurora State Airport.

One issue central to the case was whether the proposed runway extension would extend onto land zoned Exclusive Farm Use. The Court of Appeals included in its decision the aviation board’s own diagrams, which clearly show that the runway, its various components, and taxiway extend onto farmland and cut off a critical farm access road.  

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals confirmed that the aviation board’s master plan to expand the Aurora Airport runway for larger, faster, and heavier jets must be evaluated like any other urban use that seeks to expand onto farmland. Dealing an even further blow to the aviation board’s plans to pave over farmland, the Court of Appeals dismissed all of the ways the board tried to avoid complying with state and local land use laws. The Court of Appeals ruled that:

  • The aviation board’s own map clearly indicates that the proposed runway expansion extends onto farmland.
  • An airport is not a “rural” use allowed on farmland simply because a  state statute refers to the Aurora Airport as a “rural airport.”
  • The runway expansion would allow larger, faster, and heavier jets to use the airport at their maximum weight. 

For all of those reasons, the court ruled that the aviation board cannot avoid review and must evaluate the runway expansion to determine whether or not it can comply with the statewide protections for farmland.

Read the full ruling from the Court of Appeals here.

Check out all the milestones from this effort to protect farmland from the Aurora Airport expansion chronicled by 1000 Friends of Oregon affiliate, Friends of French Prairie.