Colville Mayor Duane Scott isn’t ready to lower his landing gear yet, but the city may be making its final approach to a long-delayed new airport.
A breakthrough agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may have cleared the way for a $4.5 million airport project that has been in a holding pattern for more than 20 years.
“I’m just tickled to death,” said Scott, a pilot who made the airport one of his top priorities when he took office three years ago. “It’s moving along really well.”
Until recently, it seemed that corporate jets might not land in Colville until they learned how to quack. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly opposed the new 200-acre airport because it would have destroyed 9.6 acres of a Colville River wetland that is a major stopover for migratory waterfowl.
Only small planes with good brakes can land at the city’s current airport atop a bluff at the east edge of town.
City officials won wildlife officials’ blessing earlier this month by realigning the proposed runway so that only 2.8 acres of wetland will be lost and planes would not fly over the wetland. Planning Director Sandra Nourse-Madson said the change became possible when Vaagen Bros. Lumber acquired previously unavailable farm land.
The city will purchase the airport site from Vaagen Bros., which is developing an adjacent industrial park. City officials refused to use their power of eminent domain to acquire land for the project.
Shifting the airport slightly to the northeast is a “significant improvement,” according to David Frederick, state supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said in a Dec. 22 letter that the wildlife agency no longer objects to the Army Corps of Engineers Corps issuing a wetland permit for the airport.
“If that is their position on it, that will be a major hurdle that is crossed,” said T.J. Stetz, an environmental analyst in the corps’ Seattle office. “That will certainly make it easier to issue a permit.”
Stetz said other agencies, such as the state departments of Wildlife and Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, may still have objections. But he speculated that satisfying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may alleviate other agencies’ concerns.
The project also requires a state shoreline permit from the Stevens County Planning Department, but the wetland permit is probably the biggest obstacle. Scott said the city came to terms with the state Ecology Department, which has the last word on shoreline permits, a couple of years ago.
The Ecology Department and the Army Corps of Engineers are taking written comments on the proposal until Jan. 5. The Federal Aviation Administration, which will pay 90 percent of the cost of the new airport, conducted a public hearing on the issue in May.
Stetz said the number and nature of comments will determine how long it takes the corps to make a decision, but only a couple of comments have been received so far. He said he hopes a decision can be made in a matter of weeks, not months.
Nourse-Madson said city officials hope for a decision within two months so land acquisition and wetland mitigation work can begin “as soon as the ground dries out this summer.” As conditions of the Army Corps wetland permit, the city would be required to create 10 acres of artificial wetland and shoreline habitat improvement on a site four miles south of Colville.
Still as wary as a duck in hunting season, Scott said he is reluctant to predict a completion date, “but I’d guess I’m going to put the wheels down in about three years.”