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Finger-pointing over airport project delay

Federally mandated construction improvements to the runways at Crescent City’s airport will have to wait for next year’s grant cycle from the Federal Aviation Administration after environmental analysis work for the project was not completed in time.

“It doesn’t mean we’re dead;  it’s just one of several grant cycles that we missed,” said Jim Bernard, director of the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority, during Tuesday’s meeting of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors. “The project is still alive, but delayed.”

The delay stems from the Airport Authority’s inability to submit a completed Coastal Development Permit application, necessary for most construction projects near the California coast and for the California Coastal Commission to approve the project. 

The FAA had required that the Airport Authority receive a permit from the Coastal Commission by Aug. 31 in order to be considered in the 2013 grant cycle.

Airport Authority staff had hoped to get the project approved during the Coastal Commission’s August meeting this week, but the deadline to get placed on the Commission’s agenda came and went without the Airport Authority submitting a completed Coastal Development Permit application.

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said the missing items didn’t seem to be very important information.

Some of the missing information needed to make the application complete was first requested in March after the Airport Authority first submitted an application, according to a letter sent from Coastal Commission staff to Airport Authority staff on Monday.

The letter detailed why the project wasn’t scheduled for this week’s meeting:

“We have gone to extraordinary efforts, as detailed below, to work with you to process this application by your preferred hearing date, but because the application currently remains incomplete, we have been unable to schedule it for Commission action,” the Coastal Commission letter states.

Although Coastal Commission staff have six months to review an application once deemed complete, the letter states, “we have been working with BCRAA to schedule the application for a Commission hearing as soon as possible after the application is complete.

“I’m outraged that it’s not on this cycle,” said Supervisor Roger Gitlin.

Why not complete?

One of the main components that makes the CDP application complicated is the requirement of mitigation — creating new wetlands elsewhere in the county to offset wetlands destroyed by the runway project.  The Airport Authority hired GHD Engineering’s Eureka branch as a consultant  to identify, study, and produce a plan for mitigation sites, with more than a million dollars spent studying a plan to use sites from voluntary sellers in the undeveloped Pacific Shores Subdivision in Fort Dick.

The primary reason for the delay in submitting a completed coastal permit application was the Airport Authority’s decision to look at alternative mitigation sites away from Pacific Shores Subdivision, according to Bernard, after being asked by Supervisor Martha McClure on Tuesday.

McClure, who serves on the Coastal Commission board, said that she had been personally accused of preventing the Crescent City airport project from being scheduled for this week’s commission meeting.

McClure asked Bernard to clarify that in April, two months after submitting the first permit application (albeit deemed incomplete by the Commission), the Airport Authority told the Coastal Commission that they had started seeking alternative mitigation sites after property owners in Pacific Shores filed a lawsuit against the Airport Authority and BCRAA.

McClure questioned that decision, saying “The Coastal Commission didn’t have a mitigation issue — it was your issue. And it was wrapped around the possibility of mitigation.”

Bernard said that Kelly Smith, the attorney for the Pacific Shores property owners, told the authority that if Pacific Shores was removed as a possible mitigation site, they would drop the lawsuit. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, City Council member Kathryn Murray said that the board of the Airport Authority, which she serves on, is part of the problem since some board members have objected to using Pacific Shores as a mitigation site.

“I don’t think its the Coastal Commission’s fault that we’re behind,” Murray said. “I would suggest that part of the issue with all of these hold-ups is with our board.”

Finigan responded by saying, “I really take exception that the Border Coast board is the problem. We’ve been challenging solutions since I helped architect the genesis of that authority.”

The airport’s consultant, Misha Schwarz from GHD, said that they expect to submit the documents necessary for a complete application this week or by Monday, which should allow the project to be entertained during the Coastal Commission’s September meeting.

Some supervisors voiced their frustration with the Commission’s permitting process.

“This is the same kind of crap that they’ve put us through for the last four years on the RSA,” said Supervisor David Finigan, recalling another coastal permit that was difficult to obtain.

McClure said that although the Coastal Commission may have been difficult to deal with in the past, there has been a “paradigm shift” to make it a more a “solution-oriented agency as opposed to one that doesn’t try to fix anything.”

McClure noted that one Coastal Commissioner who had a no-compromise, never-give-an-inch mentality, recently resigned because of the Commission’s new direction.

“This kinder gentler Coastal Commission, I’m waiting to see it, because that’s not the way it was when I got on the Board of Supervisors,” said Supervisor Mike Sullivan.

Supervisor Gitlin said he was “hopeful” that the  September Coastal Commission meeting would bring out the “new face” of the Coastal Commission, “but I’m highly skeptical so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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