Orchard Road vacation project at airport comes to a head

August 13, 2011

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A pilot’s view of the Ken Jernstedt Airfield on a landing approach from east to west. The red dots indicate a planned 550-foot runway shift to the east which would require vacating a section of Orchard Road, as indicated by the red squares.

A public meeting this Monday evening (6 p.m., 601 State St.) will be the best - and possibly the last - chance for people to voice concerns or objections to the vacation and closure of a 500-foot section of Orchard Road near Hood River's airport.

At the 6 p.m. meeting, the Hood River County Commission will hear from the public and the Port of Hood River on a tentative 2012 project that would close Orchard Road to through traffic in order to shift the Ken Jernstedt Airfield's runway about 550 feet east.

The commission approved an Airport Master Plan in May 2009 which details the primary goal of shifting the runway east to improve safety for both road and air traffic, specifically in regards to close perpendicular paths of the runway and Tucker Road to the west.

The shift requires demolishing a segment of Orchard Road where the east end of the runway will be extended. Through traffic on the road would no longer be possible, resulting in a detour around the airport via Windmaster corner and Tucker Road. Although the commission approved the master plan, actual road vacation requires a separate vote and public process.

"Monday's meeting is the time for people to speak up and express their concerns," said Mike Doke, Port of Hood River marketing manager. "The port is trying to be as transparent as possible with this process. We understand it would be a big change for some people. The commission is in a position where they can make a decision at the meeting, so it's important for people who have concerns to voice them that night."

According to port staff, when the commission approved the master plan, a majority of area residents who were available supported the project. But not everyone in the area was available, and since then some residents have expressed opposition to the plan.

"Before its unanimous vote adopting the master plan, county commissioners noted that airport neighbors were among the loudest voices they heard during a public hearing," the port noted in a 2009 newsletter. "And, most of the testifying residents said they favored safety over the convenience of a shorter route into Hood River."

County Chair Ron Rivers noted there was little public opposition to the master plan and its roadway vacation component: "I thought Orchard Road would be the Achilles Heel but it doesn't seem that way at all. And I'm quite pleased," Rivers said before the county commission's unanimous vote in favor of master plan adoption.

At a Port Board of Commissioners meeting this week, Doke told the board that he has been hearing opposition and problems with the plan. He also said that neighbors who were vocal in support of the proposal have not been as active, or have reversed their stance since it was originally presented.

If approved, the Federal Aviation Administration has committed to funding the roughly $1.8 million project, which would start late next summer. At Monday's meeting, the commission could vote on the plan as it stands, approve it with certain conditions, delay the decision until a future meeting or request additional collaboration from the port and the FAA.

"There are broad concerns surrounding the Orchard Road vacation," said Bob Benton, county commissioner. "I generally support the proposed changes to the airport, but the decision of whether or not to vacate the road will not be an easy one."

For Benton and a handful of other farmers, the vacation of Orchard Road would directly affect their orchard operations. As per FAA guidelines, the plan, as it stands now, does not allow for access around the east end of the runway on any property acquired by the port for the shift. Beyond that property, Benton explained, the private land isn't level enough for a realistic access road that would allow orchard equipment to get around the east end of the runway.

In addition, fruit trucks on the north side of the potential new runway would have to negotiate the sharp, sloped and uneven intersection with Tucker Road known as Nobi's Corner. Most would be coming from or going to packing houses in Odell, meaning either an unrealistic sharp left turn onto a busy road or an uneven downhill turn into oncoming traffic.

One option would be to route trucks around the corner via Guignard Drive and Barker Road, but port staff noted that that is an unrealistic long-term solution to the problem.

"We've let FAA know about these issues," Doke said Thursday following a conversation with FAA. "They've expressed a willingness to work with us. What that means will depend on what the commission decides on Monday."

Doke said one solution he's exploring with members of several agencies is to remodel Nobi's Corner. It's something that has been needed for a long time, he noted, and the commission could makes reworking the intersection a prerequisite of the Orchard Road vacation project.

Another obstacle identified during an initial public hearing was the loss of bicycle access on Orchard Road, which is a popular route for cyclists looking to avoid a busy stretch of Tucker Road that has little shoulder room.

The FAA has been expressly against public access around the eastern end of the future runway, so pedestrian or cycling traffic on the road would be effectively cut off. One possibility, the port noted, could entail another long-needed project of widening the shoulder along Tucker Road west of the airfield.

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