Port financing of airport remains unclear

Port of Coupeville commissioners aren’t sure how they plan to pay for the A.J. Eisenberg Airport.

Less than a month out from their projected closing date, Port of Coupeville commissioners still aren’t sure how they plan to pay for the A.J. Eisenberg Airport.

At an open public meeting Wednesday, Port Commissioner John Mishasek posed the million dollar question.

“To go to closing on the airport property, where would $1.1 million come from?” he asked.

Port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos said it was ultimately for port commissioners to decide.

“I’m working on it for you guys, but if you’re going to ask that question, the answer is, we do not have $1.15 million sitting in our investment account,” he said.

The Port of Coupeville’s pursuit of the airport, located on Monroe Landing Road just south of Oak Harbor, has been the subject of many public meetings and much debate across various island municipal agencies in recent months. It has also been complicated by a lawsuit brought by a local pilot who believes he has the right to purchase the small airport.

Last month, the port received an assignment of the right of first refusal on the airport from adjacent property owner Geri Morgan. Upon accepting the assignment, the port had 60 days to perform their due diligence to determine whether to go through with the purchase and close on the property.

The port’s 60-day due diligence period ends June 3, giving the agency just three weeks to come up with the $1.15 million needed to close.

Michalopoulos told port commissioners during the May 10 meeting that he is working with a bank to obtain a bridge loan. Port staff are in the process of applying for Rural Economic Development Funds from Island County, but county commissioners are not expected to award these funds until late June or July, well past the port’s purchase deadline. At least one of the commissioners has also expressed misgivings about the proposed airport purchase.

A private individual has also come forward and verbally offered a bridge loan to the port, Michalopoulos said, though he added the legality of a municipal agency accepting a loan from a private resident is uncertain and would require further research. The executive director said his current focus is not on the individual, but on the aforementioned finance option that the port is already pursuing.

North Whidbey developer Scott Thompson said he is not the individual currently offering to fund the port’s purchase, despite expressing interest in the past and even meeting with Oak Harbor city officials about it.

In an email obtained by the Whidbey News Group, Oak Harbor City Administrator Blaine Oborn told Port Commissioner David Day that Thompson stated his company was willing to provide the needed $1.15 million to the port.

According to Oborn, it was Councilmember Dan Evans who first requested that Oborn meet with him and Thompson regarding the airport.

“I told him that this was a Port project and that he should meet with the Port instead,” Oborn said. “He requested I still meet with him and Scott Thompson regarding the airport.”

The three of them met on March 8 and 9, and Oborn said Thompson verbally expressed his support for the port’s endeavor, but a formal loan offer never materialized. Thompson said in an interview that his company was asked to provide assistance because he had previously expressed support for the airport coming under public ownership. However, he ultimately declined to make a formal loan offer because the port’s plan for the airport “wasn’t what we had in mind,” he said.

Despite uncertainty over how to pay for the airport, the port’s efforts to prepare for the looming deadline continue. Stantec, the firm hired by the port to undertake a “phase 1 environmental assessment,” recently completed the job. Stantec project manager Graeme Taylor reported that the assessment yielded three notable concerns.

The first recognized environmental condition was related to two underground fuel tanks on the property, which Taylor said are old and have not been consistently monitored as the airport has changed hands over the years.

“As somebody doing due diligence, you should look at the subsurface around that tank nest to see if there’s been a release of fuels,” he said.

The assessment also revealed that the state Department of Ecology has discovered lead and cadmium on the property as a result of the stripping of aircraft paint. Taylor recommended that the port further explore the extent of the contamination.

The third condition Taylor mentioned was the possible presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, on the property. PFAS is a “forever chemical” known to have an adverse effect on human health, and it is found in some firefighting agents. The A.J. Eisenberg Airport is directly adjacent to a North Whidbey Fire and Rescue facility.

“There is some speculation that some firefighting training activities have occurred on airport property,” Taylor said, warning that PFAS may be found on the site.

Port commissioners voted unanimously to contract with SoundEarth Strategies for a Phase 2 environmental assessment.

Todd Nicholson, executive director of the Port of Friday Harbor, also joined the meeting for a presentation on airport management. The Friday Harbor Airport had similar beginnings to the A.J. Eisenberg Airport, Nicholson explained; around 40 years ago, it resembled the Oak Harbor airport in size and condition. Over the last four decades, the Port of Friday Harbor has made it into “a pretty substantial regional hub,” Nicholson said.

He said the airport is a significant boon to the Friday Harbor community in terms of economic bolstering and public safety, but cautioned Port of Coupeville officials that the success came at a steep cost.

This year was “the first time in 40 years that we’ve actually broken even,” he said.

The Friday Harbor Airport costs its port around $500,000 annually, Nicholson said. He added that the port districts managing other regional airports in the San Juan Islands are able to spend all their tax revenue on their airports, a luxury the Port of Coupeville won’t have because it also manages other properties.

“I think that it is a fair and accurate assumption that adding in an airport of any nature for the foreseeable future is going to be detrimental to your funding stream for the other properties,” Nicholson said

The Port of Coupeville could seek Federal Aviation Administration funds, Nicholson said, but he added he does not think the Port of Coupeville has the money or manpower needed to bring the A.J. Eisenberg Airport into compliance with administration regulations.

“It’s a great amenity and a great service to the community, in my opinion, but it comes at a cost,” he said.

The only action taken regarding the airport during this meeting occurred after a 40-minute executive session. Port commissioners voted unanimously to waive their conflict of interest and allow the port’s attorney to represent Geri Morgan in a civil lawsuit in which Morgan and the port are both defendants. The lawsuit, filed by North Whidbey resident Robert DeLaurentis, who is also trying to purchase the airport, disputes Morgan’s right of first refusal on the property.

Port officials did not respond by press time to the Whidbey News Group’s question of whether the litigation will impact their ability to close on the property.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that port commissioners postponed a vote to approve a contract for the Phase 2 environmental assessment. Port commissioners actually approved a contract with SoundEarth Strategies.

We regret the error.