Airport hearing sparks lively debate

A public hearing the Port of Coupeville hosted drew a large and fervent crowd of community members.

A public hearing that the Port of Coupeville hosted this week regarding its impending purchase of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport drew a large and fervent crowd of community members, each with his or her own take on why the agency should or should not go through with its plan.

Dozens of Whidbey Island residents attended the meeting May 17, either in person at Greenbank Farm or online via Zoom. A fairly even split of advocates and opponents of the port’s purchase were among the meeting’s many attendees and public commenters.

The public hearing was a step in the port’s “due diligence” process, according to port Commissioner David Day. As Day explained to those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, the port is currently nearing the end of a 60-day period to “look at the viability of the airport” before executing a purchase and sale agreement.

“This is part of that look,” he said. “Nothing is in writing or in stone at this point.”

Proponents of the port’s plan, including several general aviation pilots who fly out of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport, cited a number of potential benefits to having the airport active again. Relief in the event of a natural disaster, provision of emergency medical services and the alleviation of vehicle traffic during tourism season all made the list, as did the potential economic impact of revitalizing the airport.

Coupeville pilot Don Meehan said the port is the right entity for the job because the airport has historically been neglected and fallen into disrepair under private management. Coupeville resident Quinten Farmer shared Meehan’s qualms about private ownership, pointing out that the port is the only government agency that has stepped up and demonstrated a willingness to take on this project.

Critics of the port’s plan, however, were not moved by these arguments; several expressed support for Robert DeLaurentis, the North Whidbey resident who is also seeking to purchase the airport.

DeLaurentis made an offer on the airport last year and was conducting feasibility studies in anticipation of executing a purchase and sale agreement of his own when the Eisenberg trust contacted the airport’s neighbor, Geri Morgan, about a first right of refusal she had on the property. Morgan subsequently assigned her right to the Port of Coupeville, allowing the port to move forward with its own feasibility determination process.

DeLaurentis filed a lawsuit against Morgan, the port and the A.J. Eisenberg Airport, disputing the validity of Morgan’s right, claiming that right went away when Morgan did not exercise it when the airport was foreclosed and sold at auction in 2008.

DeLaurentis comes to the project with a long history in aviation and property management; he shared in a public comment at the hearing that he has operated multiple residential and commercial properties, served as a naval officer and has undertaken two successful solo worldwide flights.

“I have the experience to bring Oak Harbor Airport back to life, and be something that we can all be proud of as a community, without costing taxpayers anything,” he said.

His plans for the property include performing necessary maintenance to make the runway safe, building additional hangars, establishing a regular commuter service, expanding the runway, bringing businesses and a museum to the property and developing a high school aviation program.

Several community members expressed their confidence in DeLaurentis. Coupeville Town Councilmember Pat Powell said she believes DeLaurentis is “the real thing.”

“Having him do this will be a public benefit and an economic success,” she said.

Those in favor of the port’s plan, however, argued that public ownership would guarantee the property would remain an airport and remain open to public use. Oak Harbor resident Mark McMillan pointed out that with the airport under private ownership, there is no guarantee that the airport will remain publicly accessible in perpetuity.

Commissioner Day asked DeLaurentis whether he would state unequivocally that the pilots currently operating out of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport and other members of the general public would be able to continue to use the airport as they do now. DeLaurentis responded that it is his intention to keep the A.J. Eisenberg a public use airport, though any ongoing use of the facility without payment would stop immediately under his ownership.

DeLaurentis has also stated in a message to the Whidbey News Group that he is willing to commit in writing to always keeping the property an airport and never trying to change it into something else, to reinvesting any money made at the airport back into the airport, and to giving the Port of Coupeville the right of first refusal on the property if he ever wished to sell it, so long as the port would give him the same right on any surrounding land it may acquire.

Morgan, the adjacent property owner who assigned her right of first refusal to the port, has been a staunch advocate for public ownership of the airport for years, she said in a public comment, and does not think DeLaurentis is the right man for the job of revitalizing the airport.

“I didn’t like the guy, I still don’t like the guy, and he’s suing us all because he thinks he’s right,” she said. “He’s wrong.”

Opponents of the port’s purchase shared a number of other concerns. Several commenters expressed their worry that taking on management of the airport would divert the port’s funds and attention away from the historic properties it already manages — the Coupeville wharf and Greenbank Farm.

Port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos has stated that port personnel have still been active in rehabilitating these properties; roof repairs and cap and pile replacements have gained traction at the wharf in recent months after three years spent waiting on permits.

Other commenters, such as Coupeville resident John Burks, shared their fear that despite a revitalized airport serving all of North and Central Whidbey, primarily Port of Coupeville taxpayers would be on the hook for potential operating expenses.

Oak Harbor Councilmember Bryan Stucky shared his concerns over what he deemed inconsistent messaging from the port regarding its finances and plan to pay for the property, pointing out that Michalopoulos told the council that the port would be putting its own money on the line for the airport during a city council meeting but later told port commissioners that the port did not have sufficient funds in the bank to purchase the airport.

“My question is, is that money sitting in a bank account, or are we having to rely on grants?” Stucky asked. “Because I want this partnership to start off strong with honesty on both sides, and this is a little bit in conflict.”

Port Commissioner John Mishasek told Stucky that the county commissioners have discussed providing the funds for the purchase via Rural County Economic Development funds, which the port is currently in the process of applying for.

“To answer your question, the money’s there,” he said. “Can I tell you exactly whose checking account it’s going to come out of? No.”

Port Commissioner John Callahan added that the port is actively working to acquire the funds to complete the purchase in two weeks.

“The question was do we have $1.1 million in the bank, and I think the direct answer to that is no. That doesn’t mean we won’t have $1.1 million the day before we’re supposed to execute the purchase and sale agreement,” Callahan said.

Rural County Economic Development grants will not be awarded until weeks or months after the port’s June 3 purchase deadline. Michalopoulos has said in a previous port public meeting that the port is seeking a loan from a bank in the meantime.

The hearing adjourned after nearly two hours of spirited input.

“I’m very open-minded at this point to everything I’ve heard,” Mishasek said. “I think extremely good points were made.”

Port Commissioner John Mishasek addresses the crowd gathered at a public hearing on the port’s purchase of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)

Port Commissioner John Mishasek addresses the crowd gathered at a public hearing on the port’s purchase of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)

Robert DeLaurentis offers a public comment at the Port of Coupeville’s public hearing May 17. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)

Robert DeLaurentis offers a public comment at the Port of Coupeville’s public hearing May 17. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)