Public, private interests vie for Oak Harbor airport

Whidbey municipalities’ steps to bring the airport under public ownership may become moot.

Whidbey municipalities’ recent steps to bring the A.J. Eisenberg Airport under public ownership may become increasingly moot as a private buyer moves toward a purchase of the property.

At a workshop meeting last week, the Oak Harbor City Council discussed a draft interlocal agreement that would make it a financial partner to the Port of Coupeville in the latter entity’s purchase of the Monroe Landing Road airport.

Meanwhile, Robert DeLaurentis, a North Whidbey resident and general aviation pilot, said he has had the airport in escrow for around 40 days and is already undertaking feasibility studies on the property.

The global peace advocate known as the “Zen Pilot” told the News-Times that he is wasting no time in pursuing the revitalization of the airport. DeLaurentis said he recently had water samples taken on the property to determine contamination levels and plans to do more tests.

At least three instances of contamination on the property have been filed with the state Department of Ecology. A department report issued earlier this year indicates that several types of contaminants, including petroleum products, were suspected or confirmed in the soil, groundwater and surface water at the airport. At least some of the contamination is related to underground fuel tanks on the property that are some of the oldest in the state, according to DeLaurentis.

The pilot said the only thing that could prevent him from completing his purchase of the airport at this point is if tests show contamination levels in the groundwater or soil to be beyond a certain manageable threshold.

“The county’s feasibility process takes a long time,” he said. “I’m about 30 to 40 days from finishing mine.”

DeLaurentis has big plans for the airport and said he is already in conversation with contractors regarding the projects he would like to complete on the property, including runway and hangar repairs and removal of the problematic fuel tanks.

He added that he has also reached out to island stakeholders and potential business partners, including a flight school and Kenmore Air, a commercial air service that used to operate out of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport.

Though a number of local general aviation pilots have advocated for public ownership of the airport, DeLaurentis maintains there are benefits to owning the airport as a private individual; he said he can get revitalization projects underway faster than a government body.

The pilot said he wants to maintain partnerships with the county and other public stakeholders, because his interest in the airport is primarily philanthropic.

“I’m looking forward to working with the community, especially the port and county, because I think our goals are aligned,” he said.

The Port of Coupeville Board of Commissioners passed a motion last month instructing Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos to make an offer on the airport. The port is seeking financial partners for the purchase; Island County commissioners have already expressed a willingness to contribute some funds, and Oak Harbor City Council members on Wednesday discussed a potential partnership.

Like the county, the city has no interest in managing the airport. The draft interlocal agreement council members discussed during Wednesday’s workshop would allocate up to $200,000 to support the port’s purchase of the airport, feasibility studies and/or initial maintenance.

Councilmember Jim Woessner said he felt this was the right kind of support for the city to offer for a project that could have potentially significant economic benefits for Oak Harbor but which technically falls outside the city limits.

“This isn’t necessarily Oak Harbor’s huge opportunity,” he said. “In my mind, I think we’re kind of taking the appropriate role as a small part of this.”

Councilmember Brian Stucky questioned how revitalizing the airport would benefit the average city resident. Language about how the project could “drive economic development” has been vague, he said, and asked for specific examples besides commercial services that he expects only a small portion of island residents would utilize.

Councilmember Eric Marshall suggested skydiving as a potential activity at the airport that could attract tourists and others to the area, who would subsequently spend money at restaurants and shops in Oak Harbor.

Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon, who was supportive of the interlocal agreement, added that the airport could benefit island residents in case of an emergency, isolated as the island is from the mainland.

The council did not take any formal action on the interlocal agreement in the workshop meeting.