Orcas Island History: Orcas Island Airport

I’ve just learned that historylink.org have developed a historical perspective on the Orcas Island Airport. John Caldbick, published this article under creative commons license which allows any reproduction, so long as both the author and the organization are named. February 13, 2011

Orcas Island TV is considering adding this to the KORS Book developed for pilots. This historical perspective is informative and adds elements of the History of Orcas Island Airport which have been easily found before.

Made available by Washington Public Ports Association, here is the entire contents.

Orcas Island voters approve Port of Orcas on September 9, 1958.

On September 9, 1958, the voters of San Juan County approve the establishment of a port district on Orcas Island, the primary purpose of which is to purchase and operate an airstrip to serve island residents. The following year, the three elected port commissioners will purchase a small existing airstrip from a local family and prepare a comprehensive plan for the airport, but their efforts are put at risk by an apparent failure to complete the legal formalities of establishing a port. This oversight is corrected in December 1960 when the San Juan County Board of Commissioners pass resolution No. 63, which officially establishes the port, affirms the election of the commissioners, and makes its action retroactive to the date of the election more than two years earlier. Years later, a provision in the original deed will bring the port into conflict with its primary funding source, the Federal Aviation Administration. Although that dispute is not yet formally resolved (February 2011), the port has continued to improve and expand its airport facilities, and plays an ever-increasing role in the island’s residential and economic development.

Islands Apart

Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Island chain, saw its first significant, non-Native presence in the late 1850s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a deer-hunting camp at the westernmost of the island’s three long inlets, known ever since as Deer Harbor. Louis Cayou, one of the hunters, and his Lummi-Saanich wife, Mary Anne, homesteaded at the head of the harbor, becoming the first pioneer family on Orcas. But the nationality of the islands remained in dispute for several more years, with the British government and Washington’s Territorial government both asserting ownership.

After nearly two decades of bickering and joint military occupation, in 1871 the United States and Britain agreed to arbitrate the matter. In October 1872 the arbitrator, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, ruled in favor of the United States. Within the year, Washington’s Territorial legislature created San Juan County, including in its ambit the three biggest islands, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez, together with hundreds more islands, reefs, and rocks that dotted the straits between Washington and Vancouver Island.

The dispute had not slowed settlement of the islands, and by the end of the nineteenth century Orcas Island was a thriving center for fruit production, logging, and limestone. For decades, and well into the twentieth century, the major inhabited islands of the San Juan chain were laced together, and to the mainland, by the “mosquito fleet,” an armada of smallish steamers that had been plying Puget Sound since the 1850s. But the advent of the railroads and motor vehicles and the rise of farming in Eastern Washington and California soon made the islands’ primary products uncompetitive. The added cost of getting goods from the islands and into the mainland’s stream of commerce proved prohibitive, and San Juan County’s commercial links to the outside world largely withered and died.

Car ferry service to San Juan and Orcas islands started in the early 1920s, and by the end of the decade had been extended to Shaw and Lopez islands. But the boats were relatively slow and ran on a set schedule. The islands remained fairly isolated, difficult to get to, and an inconvenient place to be if in need of prompt medical care. This, combined with the demise of many of the islands’ sustaining industries, led to a long period of stasis. Largely self-contained, but unable to benefit from off-island trade, the total population of San Juan County actually declined between 1910 and 1960, from 3,600 to 2,872.

Commercial Aviation Eases Island’s Isolation

Private aviation in America received a huge boost from World War II, when thousands of men and women were trained as military pilots. At war’s end, thousands more took advantage of the GI Bill to attend civilian flying schools. Aviation was no longer the exclusive province of the commercial carriers and a few rich hobbyists. It moved quickly into the mainstream, and few places in Washington were to derive as much immediate benefit from this as the San Juan Islands. Private pilots soon had rigged makeshift landing strips in cow pastures and on fields and beaches, and in July 1947, Bob Schoen (1919-2003), a war veteran, started Orcas Island Air Service with his wife, Mary Brown Schoen. It was reputed to be the first small, scheduled commuter airline on the West Coast, and offered two flights a day to Bellingham and back.

Although Bob Schoen was far from the first to land an airplane on Orcas Island, his was the first commercial aviation operation, and it came at a time when nearly everything the island’s residents did not produce themselves had to be brought in by barge or ferry. The name of this first airline was later changed to Island Sky Ferries, perhaps to emphasize its role as an alternative to water transportation. The Schoens operated the service until 1950, and then went on to start other enterprises on the island.

The coming of commercial air traffic was a spur to the economies of the larger San Juan islands, and in subsequent years their populations burgeoned. Much of this growth was fueled by the convenience and security provided island residents by these early commercial air companies and their successors, and so important did this prove that it was not long before Orcas residents decided that a publicly owned airport would best serve their needs.

A Port is Born

On August 1, 1958 the citizens of Orcas Island gathered at a public meeting to discuss and debate the merits of establishing a publicly owned airport, either through the formation of a port district or by hosting a county-run airstrip on the island. The meeting was called by the San Juan County Board of Commissioners after it had received a written petition signed, as the law required, by at least 10 percent of the qualified electors residing on Orcas Island.

Although contemporary accounts are fragmentary, it appears that the establishment of a port district was the overwhelming favorite option at the meeting. Only one participant voted against the idea of a public airport entirely, and two preferred the county option. But the votes at the meeting in favor of creating a port district comprising all of the island totaled 130, and the die was cast. On August 4, 1958, the San Juan County Board of County Commissioners found that

“the lands situate within the boundaries of said proposed district will be benefitted thereby, and the creation of said District would be to the benefit, welfare and convenience of the residents thereof …” (San Juan County Board of Commissioners Resolution 32, 1958).

The port district measure appeared on the September 9, 1958, ballot with a simple question for the voters: “Shall a Port District to be known as the Port of Orcas and containing all of the area of Orcas Island be created?” (Special Election ballot). As the results of the public meeting predicted, it passed by a wide margin, with voters approving an island-wide port district composed of three sub-districts. All three seats on the new port commission were uncontested, and Clarence A. King, representing East Sound; Kenneth D. Pearson, representing Deer Harbor, West Sound, and Orcas; and Elton W. Sawyer, representing Doe Bay and Olga, were selected to serve as the first commissioners of the Port of Orcas.

Although the port’s founding documents do not say so explicitly, it is clear that the primary, if not sole, motive behind establishing a port district was to establish and operate an airport. That was the first order of business, and even today, more than 50 years later, the operation of the Orcas Island Airport dominates the port commission’s activities.

Fulfilling the Mandate

Captain Harold Ferris (1903-1985), an Orcas resident and sea captain by trade, had learned to fly shortly after World War II and soon decided to create a landing strip on property he owned about one-half mile north of the island’s Eastsound community. (“East Sound” is the name of the island’s largest bay, but the community located at its head is called “Eastsound”.) The grass strip, which came to be known as the Eastsound Airport, was nothing fancy, and Ferris’s daughter could recall having to put out smudge pots whenever someone wanted to make a night landing. The Ferris family was unable to operate the strip at a profit, however, and in 1958 Captain Ferris made it known that he would close it down on August 1, 1958. On that same date, those who attended the public hearing overwhelmingly approved the creation of a port district, setting the stage for an island-wide election the following month.

After the election on September 9, 1958, the three port commissioners wasted no time carrying out their mandate. On January 14, 1959, they finalized the purchase of the Ferry airstrip property for $14,000, financed by the sale of $20,000 in general obligation bonds. They established a first budget of $1,024 and voted to impose a property tax levy of two mils to finance port operations. With those preliminary steps in place, they set about fulfilling the legal requirement of preparing a comprehensive plan for airport development.

All-in-all, things seemed to be getting off to a good start, but a provision in the deed between the port and the Ferris family would come back to bedevil the port in later years. In that provision, Captain Ferris, who was still an active pilot, reserved the right

“to use said airstrip free of any charge for the use thereof for aviational purposes only, and that should Grantors sell any of their land adjacent to said airstrip [the “Adjacent Properties”], said Vendees shall also have the right of access and the use of said airstrip for aviational purposes only, upon payment of usual charges as made to others for like use …” (excerpt from Port of Orcas Resolution 9-23-10).

What this meant in practical terms was that the Ferris family, and any owners of property abutting the airport who took their title from the Ferris family, could hangar or tie down airplanes on their own land, but use the airport for takeoffs and landings “free of any charge.” They became known as “through-the-fence” fliers because they would move their planes from property to runway through openings in the fence that surrounded the airport. But the problems that would be caused by this deed provision were far in the future, and for the time being the port was kept occupied with operating and improving what would now be known as the Orcas Island Airport (sometimes still referred to as the “Eastsound Airport”).

There was one final legal glitch. From the available records, it appears that the legal existence of the port and the commission, more than two years after the election, was thrown into doubt. The most likely explanation is that the Board of County Commissioners had not taken the final step of passing a resolution verifying and affirming the results of the vote of September 9, 1958. But if there was no legal port, and thus no authorized port commission, what was to become of the work of the previous two years?

This could have had serious repercussions, including invalidation of the Ferris land purchase and the comprehensive plan the commissioners had prepared for the airport in 1959. The matter was resolved on December 5, 1960, when the San Juan County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution “nunc pro tunc” legitimizing the port, its commissioners, and the actions they had taken since being elected. (“Nunc pro tunc” is Latin legalese for “now for then,” and merely means that the terms of an order or resolution that is made nunc pro tunc will be retroactive to the time that the order or resolution properly should have been made). The port was thus saved from the embarrassment and complications of having its earliest work nullified, and was free to continue the development of an airport that would provide critical services to the residents of Orcas Island.

With Some Help from Uncle Sam

It appears that for several years after its creation, the port was content to simply operate and maintain the existing landing field that had been purchased from the Ferris family. The population of the island was stable and remained low in the first two decades of the port’s existence, and it was not until the 1970s that significant airport development took place, enabled in large part by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airstrip was partially paved by 1971, and, with the help of $315,000 in FAA funds, additional land was purchased and further improvements made in the years 1975-1977, including the completion of the paving with asphalt. In that same decade, the population of San Juan County, including Orcas Island, started to boom, and between 1970 and 1980 it more than doubled, from 3,856 to 7,838. Between 1980 and 2000 the population nearly doubled again, reaching 14,077, of whom 4,649 lived on Orcas Island, more than had occupied the entire county just 30 years earlier.

As the population grew, so did the critical importance the airport had for its water-locked population, and over the two decades from 1980 to 2000, the port received more than $1.5 million in FAA funding, much of which was used to acquire additional land and upgrade facilities. The largesse has continued, and since the turn of the new century, the Port of Orcas has received more than $1.75 million in additional federal aid. With these funds, together with operating income and smaller grants from state government, the airport has been able to consistently expand and improve its facilities. In 2003, FAA grants enabled the port to build a wildlife fence, at a cost of more than $500,000. More recently, in 2008, the Port of Orcas used federal funding to commission a complete study of the airport’s current facilities and to estimate its future needs and establish the costs and benefits of installing an instrument-approach capabilities.

But the FAA does not give out money without conditions, one of which is compliance with federal requirements on a host of aviation issues. These include restrictions on the permissible uses of land adjacent to airports, and it was on this issue that FAA regulations and the terms of the original Ferris deed came into direct conflict, triggering a debate that waxed and waned for over a decade, and which has only recently been resolved.

Vested Rights vs. Government Regulations

The dispute between the Port of Orcas and the FAA had its roots in the provision of the Ferris deed that allowed the Ferris family, and anyone taking title from the Ferris family, to use the airstrip “free of charge” providing they pay the same charges assessed against “others for like use.” The FAA’s problem was that it considered the presence of housing adjacent to the airport, and access for private planes through openings in the airport fence, to be uses incompatible with the operation of a commercial airstrip. Although the dispute had been festering since at least 2000, it was not until 2009 that the port received a formal statement of the FAA objections, a statement that was at best ambiguous:

“A federally obligated airport must ensure, to the best of its ability, compatible land use both on and off airport. An airport sponsor will not be successful in defending its airport from incompatible residential development if the sponsor is also allowing residential hangar homes on or next to the airport,” (Letter, Tim Shaw to Bea von Tobel)

The problem facing the port seemed beyond solution. On the one hand, the port was legally bound by the original deed from the Ferris family, and on its face this granted all the property owners who purchased from the family (which, by 2009, numbered 26) the right to store their planes on their own property and to access the airport for takeoffs and landings by going “through the fence.”

On the other hand, since the 1970s almost all of the airport’s expansions and improvements had been accomplished with FAA funds, and the continued flow of federal money was dependent on compliance with FAA rules. But if the port adhered to those rules, it would have to violate the provisions of its deed and open itself up to legal action by property owners. If it didn’t, it could lose all federal funding for future airport development and improvement. It seemed a true Catch-22.

The dispute was complicated by two factors. First, the port complained repeatedly that the FAA refused to provide any guidance at all on how to resolve the issue. This frustration and confusion was manifest in the minutes of a special port commission meeting held October 22, 2009, to discuss the dilemma:

“Commissioner Edwards noted that inaction on the part of the port had been tolerated by the FAA, and urged a continuation of such inaction.”

“Thurman suggested that the port ‘go it alone’ (without FAA participation) as the rules may change again.”

“Thurman added that perhaps there exists a misconception re the power of the Ferris deed which needs to be clarified.”

“Paul Vierthaler noted that the abutters had indeed been good neighbors and that none of them had received a free ride.”

“Eimers, in responding to an aforementioned ‘good neighbor’ comment from a previous meeting, noted that the neighbors ‘perhaps aren’t as good as they could be.”

“Edwards wished the FAA to ‘just leave us alone.'”

(Minutes, October 22, 2009)

The second problem centered on the provision of the Ferris deed which required “through-the-fence” fliers to pay “usual charges as made to others for like use.” Property owners argued that since nobody else was being charged specifically for “access,” neither should they. Owners of private planes who stored their aircraft on airport property paid tie-down or hangar-rental fees, not an access charge, but the abutting landowners stored their planes on their own properties. And the Ferris deed clearly gave them the right to use the airstrip “free of charge,” so landing and takeoff fees would seem to be out of the question as well.

There were on-again, off-again negotiations with the FAA, and in 2009 the commissioners finally voted in favor of levying a $100 fee on through-the-fence users, and actually passed a resolution to that effect. It was rejected by the FAA, which demanded that the port impose on abutting landowners the full tie-down fee charged to fliers who stored their planes on airport land, so that all would be treated equally. But the stubborn fact remained that these abutting landowners were not tying their planes down on port-owned land.

Finally, in 2010, the board and the Federal Aviation Administration reached an agreement, one based on a creative legal fiction. They simply agreed that one-half of the tie-down fee assessed against fliers storing their planes on airport property was actually a fee “for access,” and that therefore it was fair to charge abutting landowners one-half of the total tie-down charge, or $160 per year, for their access. But so unsure were they of their legal ground that in February 2011 the commissioners petitioned the courts to rule on the agreement’s legal validity. A decision is pending (February 2011).

Orcas Island Airport Today

From its start as Captain Ferris’s small, grass landing strip, the Orcas Island Airport has grown to a 63-acre airfield that is considered an “Essential Public Facility” under the state’s Growth Management Act. In 1993, the number of port commissioners was raised from three to five, and in 1995 the separate sub-districts were consolidated into one. Commissioners are now elected on an island-wide basis. They no longer directly operate the airport, which today is done by a hired airport manager, but they oversee all port activity and plan future growth and improvements.

The most recent available information illustrates the airfield’s importance to the island community it serves. It hosts two regularly scheduled commercial carriers, Kenmore Air Service and San Juan Airlines, and two charter lines, Northwest Sky Ferry and Island Air, the latter of which also supplies an air-ambulance service. Other commercial tenants include freight carriers Aeronautical Services Inc. and Empire Airlines, Island Aircraft Services, and Magic Air Tours, which offers scenic biplane rides.

The Orcas Island Airport’s single runway is 2,900 feet long, sufficient to accommodate smaller private jets, such as the Cessna Citation, but serves propeller-driven planes almost exclusively. In 2009, there were approximately 6,000 passenger “operations” (i.e. takeoffs and landings) and 1,000 freight operations. When non-commercial, general aviation operations are factored in, the total takeoff and landings in 2009 totaled more than 20,000.

The airport currently (2010) leases land to the owners of 37 private hangars and owns two large hangars, which are leased to commercial operators. One of these is Aeronautical Services Inc., which in addition to its freight activities, also runs the airport’s self-service fuel operations. The port owns the terminal building, which houses its offices, a passenger lounge and ticketing area, and a public-meeting facility. The airport also hosts a helipad dedicated to use for emergency medical evacuations, a service of critical importance to an island population. And every year since 1984, the airport has hosted an annual mid-summer fly-in, for which the port offers free parking, plane tie-downs, overnight camping, showers, and portable toilets. The popular event features experimental aircraft, old-fashioned airplanes, seaplanes, and retired military aircraft.

If the through-the-fence agreement holds firm, thus assuring continued financial support from the FAA, the Orcas Island Airport hopes to continue and improve its critical service to the community by expanding and upgrading its facilities. One goal under study is the installation of equipment that would permit bad-weather, instrument approaches to the airport, thus eliminating the approximate one month of each year during which it experiences “marginal” conditions for visual flight. One thing is certain — Orcas Island will always be an island, and it will always need the convenience and security that an airport provides.


Nina Laramore, “Port’s ‘Through The Fence’ Issue Could Affect Entire Orcas Community,” Islands Sounder, August 2, 2009 (http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/sanjuans/isj/news/52319222.html); Meredith Griffith, “Orcas Airport Use Will Now Cost Landowners with Deeded Access $100 Annually,” Islands Sounder, March 30, 2010 (http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/sanjuans/isj/news/89540332.html?period=W&mpStartDate=01-22-2011); “History of the Port of Orcas/Orcas Island Airport,” Port of Orcas website accessed February 8, 2011 (portoforcas.com/baywindow/History%20Port%20of%20Orcas.doc); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Washington Public Port Districts — Part 2,” (by Kit Oldham), and “San Juan County — Thumbnail History,” (by Kit Oldham), and “Washington’s Public Port Districts and Port-Owned Airports,” (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 8, 2011); Resolution No. 9-23-10, “A Resolution Establishing a Fee for Through-The-Fence Access to The Port of Orcas Airport,” Port of Orcas website accessed February 10, 2011 (portoforcas.com/baywindow/res09-23-10.doc); “Minutes of the Regular Meeting of the Port of Orcas Commissioners: October 22, 2009,” Port of Orcas website accessed February 9, 2011 (http://www.portoforcas.com/minutes/102209.html); “FAA Demands Neighbors’ Access Plan from Port of Orcas,” Bullwings: Orcas Issues website accessed February 10, 2011 (http://orcasissues.com/faa-demands-neighbors%E2%80%99-access-plan-from-port-of-orcas/); “Airport Ownership and History,” Feasibility Study and Airport Layout Plan: Orcas Island Airport, Eastsound, Washington, March 2008, Port of Orcas website accessed February 8, 2011, complete text available at (http://www.megaupload.com/?d=HNN1PEB4); “Port of Orcas Enplanement and Operations Data, 1998-2009,” Port of Orcas website accessed February 10, 2011 (http://portoforcas.com/baywindow/98%20to%2009%20data.xls); Ben Sclair, “Thru-the-Fence Discussion Reaches Orcas Island, Washington,” Living With Your Plane website accessed February 11, 2011 (http://livingwithyourplane.com/2009/08/03/thru-the-fence-discussion-reaches-orcas-island-washington/); “KORS Orcas Island Airport — FAA May End Easements,” The Kathryn Aviation Report, August 3, 2009 (http://www.thekathrynreport.com/2009/08/kors-orcas-island-airport-faa-may-end.html); “Resolution No. 32 — 1958: A Resolution Submitting to the Electors the Proposition ‘Should the Port of Orcas be Created,'” Port of Orcas website accessed February 9, 2011 (http://www.portoforcas.com/baywindow/1958Resol%20vote%20to%20%20form%20PoO.pdf); “Resolution No. 63: Nunc Pro Tunc,” Port of Orcas website accessed February 9, 2011 (http://www.portoforcas.com/baywindow/1960Resol%20NuncProTunc.pdf); Bea vonTobel, emails to John Caldbick, February 8, 10, and 11, 2011, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington; “Special Election Ballot,” San Juan County Clerk’s office in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.

By John Caldbick, February 13, 2011

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