Opinion: Re-Imagining the Hillsboro Airport

 By Miki Barnes,  founder of Oregon Aviation Watch

According to a Feb. 14, 2021, Oregonian article, “The Port of Portland is considering a major overhaul…the restructuring is part of a sweeping philosophical shift away from facilitating trade for powerful business interests to a ‘shared prosperity initiative’ intended to spread the wealth to people of color, the poor and the marginalized. In some cases, that could mean selling off profitable operations in order to pursue these new, broader aims, which are taking root amid a resurgent civil rights movement.”

The executive director of the Port, Curtis Robinhold, admitted that “The Port was formed in 1891 to benefit exporters of wood and grain—white men who owned businesses.” 

The Port-owned and -operated Hillsboro Airport (HIO) remains a testament to the racist, white privilege values that continue to permeate Port culture. This facility primarily serves the less than 1/4 of one percent of the population certified to fly in Oregon. Of that number, 92 percent are men, the majority of whom are white. 

HIO, the largest general aviation airport in the state, does not generate revenue. In fact, it loses money every year despite receiving millions of dollars in FAA and state handouts. 

Residents of Washington County, the most diverse jurisdiction in the state, are routinely hammered by users of HIO who have a long history of dousing Hillsboro and the surrounding community, both urban and rural, in a steady stream of noise, lead emissions, and other pollutants. 

In addition to private and recreational pilots, student pilots are recruited from around the world, so that “white men who own businesses” and the Port can turn a profit. Among the worst offenders are the flight training schools—Hillsboro Aero Academy (HAA), ATP, and Alaska/Horizon. HAA is owned by two east coast private equity firms—Graycliff Partners and Renovus Capital. According to its website two-thirds of the pilots trained by the academy are from overseas. ATP is headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware. 

In addition, Max Lyons, the owner of Hillsboro Aviation and manager of the Hillsboro Aero Academy, profits from selling fuel. The majority of flights in and out of HIO are piston engine aircraft that rely on leaded fuel. As a result, this airport, the largest facility source of airborne lead pollution in the state, ranks eighth among 20,000 airports nationwide in lead emissions. 

There are numerous options for a more sustainable and environmentally responsible use of the approximately 900 acres of land upon which HIO is located. More than 8,000 people live in Portland’s Multnomah Village, which is located on just over 900 acres. Amenities include residential neighborhoods, schools, parks, shops, and restaurants. The Pearl District in downtown Portland is home to over 6,000 residents. Situated on 301 acres, it has many shops, galleries, and restaurants. Three walkable, public transit-oriented neighborhoods the size of the Pearl could fit on the land now being used by HIO.

The University of Oregon, with over 18,000 students, is located on 295 acres. Three universities the size of U of O would fit on the HIO property. An educational setting of this nature could promote international student exchange programs that foster respect for the rights of local residents to enjoy their homes, free from the noise disruptions and pollution generated by the aviation sector. Students and faculty from countries around the globe could gather together to explore ways to share, honor and preserve this community.

Central Park, the heart and soul of New York City, is the same size as HIO. For years the Port has promoted the felling of trees and described the presence of birds and wildlife in airport environs as a threat. By building a park on this property, plant, animal, and human life can be encouraged rather than systematically poisoned. By cultivating a relationship with a biodiverse environment, the natural world could be nurtured and embraced rather than treated as hazards to be eliminated and destroyed.

There are many creative, life affirming possibilities for the land upon which HIO is now located. The focus of repurposing and reimagining could be on integrating indigenous wisdom traditions, building sustainable communities, reducing greenhouse gases, welcoming diversity, and promoting democratic engagement while prioritizing economic equity and environmentally responsible decision making.

Aviation is one of the most polluting forms of transportation on the planet. To protect and preserve the environment for current and future generation, we need to explore, identify, and champion alternatives to the Hillsboro Airport. 

This letter was also published in Hillsboro News Times.