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Port still looking at purchase of Whidbey Airpark

The Port of South Whidbey is considering the  possibility of a public airport at Whidbey Airpark. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
The Port of South Whidbey is considering the possibility of a public airport at Whidbey Airpark.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

Whether or not the idea of a public airport on South Whidbey ever takes flight is still up in the air.

Port of South Whidbey commissioners are still interested in the possibility of buying, improving and operating Whidbey Airpark on Crawford Road in Langley.

There are a few challenges to overcome, of course, including financial concerns, access and neighborhood reaction.

Port officials have said the purchase of industrial property could lead to additional economic development on the South End if the port buys and then leases land to private companies. They have repeatedly stated they have no wish to own and run a commercial airport, but they funded a study by a local airport consultant last year to check it out.

President David Ketchum of Airside, a consulting and design firm in Greenbank, and author of an airport study released in January, said the Federal Aviation Administration would fund the project, though the port would need to pay for an initial environmental assessment and development of a master plan costing roughly $60,000; the port’s share would be $3,000.

“If the port decided to pursue the matter with state transportation officials and the FAA, it wouldn’t be committed,” Ketchum told commissioners last week. “But the FAA needs to know if you are interested in sitting down and examining the options.”

Ketchum said the most likely use of the facility would be for charter flights and private operators.

Under close questioning, Ketchum admitted that, should a commercial passenger service come to the port and ask to begin scheduled air service, the port would have no choice but to say yes, since the airport would be built primarily with federal dollars.

And therein lies the rub for port commissioners.

“Considering all the problems the port has on its plate, (going forward) isn’t a very good idea,” said Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle. “The public process alone would be brutal, though I agree there are definite economic benefits to the community.”

But Port Commissioner Geoff Tapert is worried that the airpark, and its potential for economic development, could disappear if some agency doesn’t step up to the plate.

“I don’t want it to go away and yet we can’t put a lot of money into it,” he said.

Last August, commissioners authorized Ketchum to undertake an airport site assessment on the merits of turning the privately-owned Whidbey Airpark into a public facility.

Funding for the airpark study was authorized by a grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation. The state contributed $28,500, while the port’s share was $1,500.

Ketchum estimated total acquisition costs to be roughly $5 million over the next 20 years.

“The state and the FAA would pay 97.5 percent of that amount,” he said. “The port’s share would be about $300,000, but there are no guarantees.”

With 20 percent population growth expected over the next two decades, Ketchum said air travel might play a bigger role in island life, especially with no public airports nearer than Paine Field in Everett.

His study listed four primary action options:

• First, do nothing.

• Second, buy the airpark and surrounding private property as a future investment.

• Third, develop the airpark to make it safer by widening the runway and taxiway.

• Fourth, extend the runway by another 600 feet, install lighting and build turn-arounds.

Recently, the owners of the airpark have announced a price reduction of $575,000. The development, including the existing 2,434-foot paved runway, is now offered for sale at $1.2 million. That does not include the price for several parcels of private land that edge the runway.

Another concern is the unfinished state of Crawford Road, which could affect commercial and public access to the airpark. The county has discussed paving the poorly-maintained thoroughfare, but most such projects are on hold at the county level until the economic outlook brightens.

Ketchum told commissioners that his role wasn’t to persuade the port one way or the other, but rather to offer viable options.

There are currently 19 aircraft based at the 42-acre airpark. With 41 registered airplane owners on South Whidbey, a fully-functional airport could capture up to 20 of those owners, paying fees that would go to into the port’s coffers.

Port officials have made no final decisions. Ketchum said the next step is to meet with the FAA.

“I don’t see a problem taking this study all the way to the finish line, especially if the financial commitment is minimal,” Tapert said. “There’s very little risk to the port and it fully meets our comprehensive plan requirements.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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