No-fly Zone: Local model airplane club seeks new home

Fern Prairie Modelers Club looks for space after Port of Camas-Washougal ends 30-year agreement

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Fern Prairie Modelers Club member Larry Webberley displays his model airplane at the Port of Camas-Washougal industrial park in October 2020. (Contributed photos courtesy of Steve Carroll)

The Fern Prairie Modelers Club is looking for a new home.

The club has operated a model airplane flying field at the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park for more than 30 years, but recently found out that Port leaders, who are planning to build a new, 50,000-square-foot industrial building on the field in 2021, will terminate the club’s agreement on Jan. 31, 2021.

Steve Carroll, the club’s vice president, said the club “holds no ill will toward the Port,” but called the notice “disappointing.”

“I think it is fair to say that when you’re leasing property in an industrial park that is under constant development and growth, your chances of staying there for a long time are always in doubt,” Carroll said. “But even with that shadow over us, when we got the official news, it was a jolt to the system. ‘Disappointing’ is the very best word that I could pick.”

“They’ve been very good hosts to us for a long time, and on the flip side, I think we’ve been good tenants for them. It’s been a good partnership,” Carroll added. “We realize that the Port has certain priorities regarding economic growth, and that it can make decisions that might not work out for us. But the bottom line is the Port has been very good to us, and we’re grateful to have been able to share their space.”

David Ripp, the Port’s chief executive officer, said the agency has “always enjoyed (its) relationship with the Fern Prairie Modelers.”

“Since the day I started at the Port, I have always enjoyed watching them fly their remote control planes,” Ripp said. “They have always been great stewards of the community and helped show children and young adults how to fly these planes and develop interest in this hobby. Another appreciation I have for them is their management of the site they used. It was always well kept and clean. They prided themselves on maintaining a nice looking area for their members and the public.”

The club is currently planning to transfer its equipment from the Port field to a temporary storage location, FPMC board member Matt Winit said in a recent Facebook post.

“We realize that this has already been a challenging year on many fronts, but we are committed to preserving the long history that the Fern Prairie Modelers have in our community,” Winit told club members in the post. “We know this is not the news that anyone wants to hear. We have enjoyed one of the premier flying sites in the area for several decades, and our time at this current location has already stretched far longer than we were ever expecting. While we close this chapter, (we) look to the future with optimism that our club will continue with the same level of participation and community involvement. History has proven our group is resilient, and there is no doubt this hurdle can be overcome.”

Carroll said that the group’s current home is “the nicest remote control airplane field in the Northwest.”

“There’s ample space. When you’re flying little airplanes, you need several acres,” he said. “It’s not in the middle of a (populated) area, so we’re not creating upheaval in a residential setting. With the parking facilities, the structures, the runway and the space, it’s really a wonderful place for our hobby.”

Club leaders have identified several attributes that they’d ideally like to see in their new location, Carroll said.

“We need several acres of clear area to fly the airplanes,” he said. “It would be best if it was reasonably close to (Camas-Washougal) for access. We’d hate to have to drive 30 or 40 miles to fly airplanes. The location itself, depending upon the topography or whether or not there are shrubbery or trees, might require clearing. It might take several thousand dollars to prepare a field for what we do. The less improvements that we are required to make, the better off it it would be.”

Currently the club has more than 100 members, most of whom specialize in radio-controlled, sport model airplanes. However, some members are also interested in other areas of model aviation, including scale models, gliders, helicopters, pylon racers, control-line and free-flight modeling.

The club holds a variety of flying events for seasoned veterans and newcomers, and actively supports local charities and programs to enhance students’ interest in aviation, engineering and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.

“We think we serve a very useful purpose in the community, and we’re hoping that the response that we get (in the search for a new home) is favorable in that regard,” Carroll said. “I think the club is a pretty persistent and forward thinking group, and we will be back at another field somewhere and in position to be even more active in the community.”