Following months of debate, the Pendleton City Council extended the back-and-forth over contentious airport lease language at least another few weeks.
At a council meeting on Tuesday, the council voted to send the issue back to the Pendleton Airport Commission.
At the heart of the conflict is the city’s decision to revisit and clarify the “reversionary clause,” contract language that allows the city to take back its property once a lease ends. Since the city is federally prohibited from selling property on the airfield or in the industrial area surrounding it, all leased land at the airport would be subject to this clause.
City officials argue that some variation of the reversionary clause has always existed with airport leases and the clause itself is standard across airports overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Critics of the reversionary clause, many of them owners of general aviation businesses, say that previous airport administrations interpreted the clause differently and the city’s most recent proposal would kill further development at the airport.
The airport commission had hammered out a compromise language after an extended period of debate.
Under the commission’s proposal, tenants would have two 50-year lease options.
The first option would give the tenant an option of paying a “reversion deferral fee” at the end of the lease equal to the value of the property, allowing them to negotiate a new lease at the end of the term. The second option would have a similar outcome, but instead of a fee, the tenant would pay twice the market rate over the life of the lease.
The commission believed this would allow the airport to recover the value of the land, while also allowing long-term tenants to stay on the property across multiple leases.
The commission sent their proposal to the city council for approval, but City Manager Robb Corbett wrote a counterproposal that included some new wrinkles.
Corbett’s proposal caps leases at 40 years for noncommercial tenants and only allows for 50-year leases for commercial tenants if they reach a certain “level of capital investment and contribution to the economics of the airport.”
Pendleton Aircraft Service owner Harold Nelson and his son, Curtiss Nelson, have been mainstays at public meetings dealing with the reversionary clause, and they used the meeting’s public comment section to continue to criticize it.
In addition to the standard arguments, the pair argued that general aviation businesses had supported the airport through tougher times even as the city has begun awarding millions of dollars to the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range.
(The test range) is going to sunset someday,” he said. “Pendleton, I’m afraid to say, is not the drone center of the world. I think it’s great. The money here is great. It’s great to see all this activity. Just be cautious, because the (regulations) will change. They always do.”
Airport Manager Steve Chrisman recalled that the effort to change the reversionary language had been a tough process.
“This has been an extremely contentious, unpleasant period in my existence,” he said. “It’s gotten very personal at times when it shouldn’t have. I feel like every decision staff has tried to make has been in the best interest of the airport.
He added that land leases alone would not be able to support the airport alone, and he would need 1,000 more land leases to make the airport viable on that source of revenue.
The council also questioned the uncertain threshold Corbett used for tenants to obtain a 50-year lease, but the city manager said staff members needed it that way to maintain their flexibility in negotiations.
Councilor Scott Fairley motioned to send the proposal back to the airport commission so they could consider some of Corbett’s revisions, but it only narrowly passed 5-3, with councilors Jake Cambier, Becky Marks, and Dale Primmer voting against.
Mayor John Turner urged staff and airport commission to come back to the council with a quick resolution.
“Let’s not make a career out of this,” he said. “Let’s get back to this group pretty fast.”