Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Federally required improvements to the runways at Crescent City's airport hit a hurdle last week when a lawsuit was filed by property owners in the Pacific Shores subdivision, which the airport hopes to use to create wetlands so state regulators will green-light the project.

If Jack McNamara Field airport didn't lie in the coastal development zone, who knows? Maybe the runway project - necessary to continue to operate as a commercial airport - would already be under way.

But as airport-by-the-sea reality dictates, the Runway Safety Area project is subject to the California Coastal Commission's request to mitigate destruction of wetlands with the creation of new wetlands elsewhere.

Enter Pacific Shores Subdivision, the controversial-since-birth housing tract without houses that occupies an isthmus of sometimes-flooded dunes between Lake Earl and the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles north of Crescent City.

The lawsuit is in response to the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority's search for voluntary sellers of Pacific Shores properties in order to create 67 acres of wetland to proceed with the project that will disturb 17 wetland acres.

"The Border Coast Regional Airport Authority ("Authority") wants the private property owners in the Pacific Shores subdivision of Del Norte County to bear the cost of the environmental impacts to widen its airport runway," says the introduction of the lawsuit by the Pacific Shores Property Owners Association.

The lawsuit alleges that the Federal Aviation Administration violated a law that ensures that owners of property being acquired for federal projects are treated "fairly and consistently," by allowing the Airport Authority to offer less than "just compensation."

In May, the airport authority sent letters to certain property owners that fit the criteria for wetland mitigation, offering a one-time single-price offer of $5,000 per lot, a number determined by a recent appraisal paid for by the airport authority.

"Without any proper environmental analysis, without any explanation of a public purpose of a project, the Authority has begun willy-nilly purchasing private lots within the subdivision," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that the airport authority did not properly adhere to the environmental review process, namely the California Environmental Quality Act, because it didn't considermitigation sites other than Pacific Shores.

"Plaintiffs will prove that the acquisition's (sic) conducted aredone not for an ostensible airport related project, but to bribe administrative approval by state environmental regulatory agencies which have coveted the properties, and which wish to use FAA funds for that purpose," the lawsuit states.

David Finigan, chairman of the airport authority commission and a county supervisor, said that since there has not been time to review the lawsuit, it would not be appropriate to comment.  The authority commission will discuss the lawsuit in closed session during next week's meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Beyond the lawsuit

In an attempt to alleviate the airport authority's mitigation misery, Crescent City attorney Robert Black offered to donate eight Pacific Shores properties to the county.  Black acquired the properties as a result of judge-ordered payment from Pacific Shores Property Association for his attorney fees from another lawsuit.

After two years of nonpayment, the sheriff auctioned off the lots, but since no one else bid, Black received them as partial payment, he said.

The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to accept the donation via its consent agenda Tuesday, but Supervisor Roger Gitlin pulled the item, because of the conditions tied to the donation.

Black's offer stipulated that the property be used to further developments or improvements at the airport, what Gitlin correctly called "mitigation."

"I want to be clear on what that word means, it's bargaining chips," Gitlin said, using the same phrase used in the Pacific Shores lawsuit. "It's designed to satiate what I feel is the unreasonable demand by our California Coastal Commission for the privilege of developing Jack McNamara Field."

The demand Gitlin referred to is the commission's insistence on a 4:1 ratio of new wetlands to destroyed wetlands, which some county supervisors have balked at.

Supervisor Martha McClure, who serves on the Coastal Commission, said that her research shows that the 4:1 ratio is the norm for commission-regulated projects. Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said that Black's properties can be sold and the funds could be used to offset county costs associated with the airport.

He said that the county will not escape some mitigation work, as even the Army Corps of Engineers will require at least a 1:1 ratio.

"It's going to get donated; I just assume it gets donated to the airport or the county to help us with our process," Hemmingsen said.

Gitlin also lamented the loss of property taxes that would occur by making Black's lots public.

Supervisors McClure and David Finigan highlighted the economic benefit to the county of retaining Crescent City's airport commercial status compared to the nominal property tax collected on lands valued at only four figures.

The property tax bill was $20.24 for Black's eight properties, and out of hundreds of properties in Pacific Shores, less than $21,000 in property taxes is collectable, according to the county Auditor's Office.

"It always surprises me when people want to talk about property rights and then do not want to honor the willing seller, willing buyer or the person who wants to do what they want to do with their property," McClure said.'Mr. Black has every right to give his property to someone. He's made the offer to us."

Finigan said that accepting the land has nothing to do with the mitigation ratio that will ultimately be negotiated with the Coastal Commission.

Gitlin also pulled a consent agenda item that had the county moving forward on selling 27 tax-defaulted Pacific Shores lots owned by the county to the airport authority for mitigation purposes.

After several members of the public called the sale an attempt to take Pacific Shores private property, Finigan shared a shortened background.

"People had the right to sell (the lots); people tried to sell them, people couldn't sell them, so they tax-defaulted on them.The county was besieged by Fish and Game and other governmental entities that wanted to buy those," Finigan said. "We would have had no productivity out of that property whatsoever so we, on behalf of the public, restrained the sale of those to any other public entity until we were at a point now where we can benefit for the economic development of the community."

After almost tabling the items because of the Pacific Shores lawsuit, the supervisors unanimously approved the sale of the county-owned lots to the airport authority.  The supervisors also approved accepting Black's donation of lots, on a 4-1 vote with Gitlin dissenting.

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