Friday, February 10, 2012

LOSING ALTITUDE: Creswell considers closing its municipal airport over skydiving

CRESWELL — The city of Creswell is considering closing its airport after Eugene Skydivers’ owner filed a complaint against it with the federal government. It was the latest salvo in a long-running battle over whether skydivers should be able to land at the airport.

“The Creswell City Council plans to review its commitment to maintaining airport services at a special City Council meeting on Tuesday ,” the city’s website says. “This evaluation is necessary due to the very high anticipated cost to defend a Federal Aviation Administration complaint filed by Mr. Urban Moore, owner of Eugene Skydivers.”

Closing the airport? Hobby Field — touted by the city as one of the state’s busiest general aviation airports, home to the Experimental Aircraft Association, a flight simulator, aerobatic rides, two asphalt runways, 115 single engine planes, three helicopters and two ultralights? The place from which Bob Severns has been taking off and landing for 55 of his 70 years?

Severns says, in no uncertain terms, that he’s tired of the 7-year-old battle between the city and Eugene Skydivers.

Moore, who filed with the FAA in December, says the city’s 2006 ban on skydiving is illegal discrimination at a city-owned facility that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants over the years.

The city says skydiving isn’t safe at Hobby Field. Moore says it is safe, and that the FAA has agreed with him, on several occasions.

Ferreting out who’s right will take time and attorneys’ fees. City Administrator Mark Shrives says just to complete a full response to Moore’s complaint will cost $100,000, and, for an airport that barely breaks even year to year, that kind of money is not exactly lying around.

“To fight it, the City Council has got to make a decision to transfer money from the general fund,” Shrives said.

Thus, a meeting has been called to consider all of the options; even the very dire.

Moore contends the city can’t shut the airport down legally because of the federal grant money it receives. Severns agrees, and Shrives admits he doesn’t know whether that’s really an option.

“We haven’t gone there yet,” he said. “That’s part of the discussion.”

The city’s in a tough spot, Shrives said, wedged between FAA conclusions that went from a decree that the airport wasn’t a safe place for skydivers to subsequent reversals of that position to the most recent position, from a city-hired consultant, that also said it’s not safe.

“I’m not sure (allowing skydiving) is an option,” Shrives said, noting the consultant’s take. “They determined there was no safe place to land skydivers at the airport.

“I’m not sure how you would turn around and say we don’t believe that report anymore.”

The way to solve the problem, Moore said, is to agree with the feds, who have weighed in three different times since 2007, to say it is possible for skydiving to exist at Hobby Field, provided some appropriate measures are taken. He says he’s willing to work something out.

The city doesn’t see a compromise. Now, city officials must decide how they’re going to pay attorneys’ fees that could soar well past that initial $100,000.

The city has hired outside counsel with a specialty in this field.

“The consideration is, will this ever stop?” Shrives said. “Let’s say we go through this and the city is successful. He could file an appeal, another complaint.”

All for an airport that tends to lose money, year after year. In 2009-2010, the city’s budget included a transfer of $100,000 from the general fund to cover losses at the airport.

Talk of closure already has airport users upset. Severns agrees that the city is in a pickle, but “they put themselves there,” he said, “by carrying on this fight with the skydivers. The airport and the skydivers used to coexist just fine.”

Then the skydivers began “abusing the situation,” walking across the runway when airplanes were on take-off runs, Severns said.

“There were some serious safety concerns,” he said.

But the city hasn’t done much to mitigate those concerns, other than banning skydiving in 2006, Severns added.

“There’s blame on both sides,” he said.

Bill Dewey, another longtime user, said he’s been flying for 50 years and uses the Creswell airport regularly.

“It’s a very big concern, if it’s closed,” he said. “A lot of people depend on that airport. I would probably have to sell my airplane and get out of aviation.”

Moore says he has no choice but to fight or go out of business, as his only competitor, Wright Brother Skydiving, did after the ban took effect. Moore now offers more limited skydiving services on some county-owned property 9 miles from Hobby Field.

Between the lost business and the fees he pays to use that site, there’s no way for the Eugene Skydivers to grow, he said.

“The city’s refusal to comply with the FAA’s finding, and discrimination against skydiving, has nearly put me out of business,” he said. “Now that I’m calling them out for their wrongdoing, they’re making threats rather than living up to their promises.”

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