Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Funds misuse shouldn’t influence fate of Sisters Eagle Air Airport (6K5) listing: State control of the airport could be a possibility

 More than 20 letters that were left out of the public testimony last month have prompted the state’s aviation board to reconsider whether or not the Sisters Eagle Airport should be listed on a state inventory of private-public airports.

The stakes involved with the airport being listed on Appendix M are the same as they were when Oregon Department of Aviation board members originally approved the designation at their March 7 meeting: Decisions involving airport uses — such as whether or not skydiving should be permitted there — will be up to the state, as opposed to the city of Sisters and Deschutes County.

The only thing that has changed is that an Oregon Department of Transportation review, completed March 21, found that Sisters airport owner Benny Benson misused nearly $400,000 in ODOT grant funds and was told to pay the money back by Thursday.

According to ODOT, the airport’s attorney requested on Wednesday a two week extension to respond to the review, which the agency granted. The new deadline is April 20, according to ODOT spokesperson Dave Thompson.

But even though the airport was found to have broken the terms of the transportation grant it was awarded for runway work in 2015, Oregon Department of Aviation director Mitch Swecker said that issue won’t have an effect on the board’s vote.

“They’re separate issues,” Swecker said, noting that the department was aware of the ODOT findings.

According to ODOT’s letter, Sisters Eagle Airport owner Benny Benson has to pay $390,185 back to the agency because of violations of the grant agreement. That repayment would account for $377,152 in ConnectOregon grant funds the agency found that Benson misused. Benson paid an engineering company he owns with his wife, Julie Benson, for runway work at the airport, along with $13,033 in matching dollars that Benson agreed to pay but never did when he was awarded the grant in 2015.

Benny Benson didn’t respond to calls for comment on Wednesday. Sisters Eagle Airport Manager Dave Campbell also declined to comment.

When the Oregon Department of Aviation board votes again on April 20, board members will be deciding on whether or not to approve the Sister airport’s application to be listed on an official state listing of private-public airports. The board at its March 7 meeting originally voted to approve the listing, which would lead to the state control of approved uses at Sisters Eagle Airport.

However, Swecker said that it was brought to the board’s attention that 21 letters had been left out of the March meeting packet that board members received.

“Out of an abundance of caution and fairness we are taking and incorporating from the public comment period those 21 emails to see if they have any impact on the vote,” Swecker said. He considered the letters being forgotten an “administrative oversight.”

“Whatever happens probably won’t satisfy everyone, but at least we did our due diligence by including these other letters,” he said. “We’re just trying to treat everyone fairly.”

The request to be listed as a public-private airport was made by Benson in 2015. Being listed as such would lead to the state taking control of approved uses at Sisters Eagle Airport. Currently, matters of land use are under the jurisdiction of the city of Sisters and Deschutes County.

The issue has been at the heart of a recent local controversy in Sisters. City residents, who have packed local meetings to discuss the listing and even formed a group called Save Our Skies, oppose Benson’s request. Group members and others say that if the airport gets listed, opportunities to have local input at Sisters Eagle Airport will go away.

Patricia Kearney, who is on the Save Our Skies leadership committee, said she thinks that the group has been successful in its efforts to bring attention to the potential loss of local control at the airport. However, she said that in her opinion the ODA board should expand its criteria when it considers a public-private listing.

“The board says their vote has nothing to do with the investigations that are going on,” she said, noting that the Save Our Skies group didn’t have anything to do with the ODOT grant review. “As a citizen, I find that kind of discouraging.”

For his part, Swecker said the board is aware of the ODOT review findings, but said that ultimately the state listing will come down to the Sisters airport meeting one of three criteria: that it provides important links in air traffic in Oregon, provides essential safety or emergency services, or is of economic importance to the county where its located. Anything beyond those three factors won’t be considered.

“It’s an unfortunate coincidence,” he said, referring to the ODOT review. “I wish the timing could be different.” 

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