Disputes derail Geiger spur

Efforts to redirect the West Plains Geiger Rail Spur have been sidetracked by disputes over rights-of-way. Two miles of the spur, which serves several Airway Heights businesses, must be moved off Fairchild Air Force Base for security reasons and to make room for a new Army Reserve center.

Four miles of new rail would connect the spur to the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad. That track intersects BNSF Railway Co. track at Cheney. The state has set aside $7 million for the project, which officials had expected would be completed last summer.

But Spokane County, the spur’s owner, has not yet secured three pieces of property needed to complete the right-of-way from Airway Heights down to the PRCCR line at White Road.

A rezone approved Dec. 19 by the Growth Management Steering Committee should eliminate one roadblock if the county commissioners endorse the deal. The committee rezoned 315 acres from rural traditional to light industrial. Most of the tract runs along the west side of Craig Road south of McFarland Road.

The property owner is Carstens Co. President Pete Carstens said he had the tract zoned light industrial in the early 1980s but, without his knowledge, it was zoned back to agricultural in 2003 or ‘04.

He discovered the change when he was approached about a possible sale. “I had no clue,” he said.

Carstens said he is willing to sell the county the five acres needed for spur right-of-way at a price near the appraisal of slightly more than $12,000 an acre, in part because he wants the Air Force, Spokane’s largest employer, kept happy. Fairchild officials, as well as those at Spokane International Airport, have become increasingly sensitive to development that might impede use or expansion of those facilities.

“Even as a private citizen, you don’t want to screw them up,” he said.

Northwest Industrial Services owns the adjacent property, part of which is a gravel pit. Partners Ted and John Condon said they also want to allay Fairchild’s concerns, but the last written offer received from the county was about $40,000 for a 50-foot right-of-way a few thousand feet long.

But the proposed route crosses the middle of the pit, Ted Condon said. “It disrupts the total operation.”

The Condons say they want to sell the entire 150-acre property to the county. Half could be sold to the Air Force, Ted Condon said, and the county could use gravel from the site as ballast for the railroad, and substrate for roads, as it did for McFarland.

“Our suggestions as to what should go on out there have fallen on deaf ears,” Ted Condon said.

John Condon said a Portland buyer for the property backed away from a $1.4 million deal when told of the county’s intentions by Economic Development Director Steve Harris. But the county hasn’t budged from its right-of-way only offer. County appraisals for the whole property fall far short of the private offer.

“I’m getting real tired of those kinds of responses,” John Condon said. “I’m just waiting for them to get reasonable.”

Commissioner Todd Mielke said the third property needed should be in county hands soon after Jan. 1.

Mielke declined to comment on the gap between county and Northwest valuations of the gravel pit property. Local officials are anxious to get the tract in hand because there is a possibility the military will revisit the base closure process, which was supposed to have concluded in 2005, he said.

Savings from previous base closures have fallen far short of projections. Any concern about land use around Fairchild could put the base back in play, said Mielke, who noted the state could cover one-third the cost of the property.

Carstens and Condon say their land could also accommodate a transloading and logistics center, where goods would move from rail cars to trucks, or vice versa. Air freight could also become part of the mix.

Harris said the Washington Department of Transportation has budgeted $860,000 for engineering and design of the center, but will not turn the money over until the county has secured the right-of-way.

“Right now, my main concern is to get the damn line built,” Harris said.

The urgency stems from the Air Force’s desire that the line be off Fairchild grounds by September 2008, not the original deadline of 2009. The Army Reserve unit move pushed up the timetable, he said.

Meanwhile, Carstens, Ted Condon and Harris said there has been considerable interest in the spur from companies in need of rail access.

“The word is out, and they’re snooping,” said Harris, who estimates it would take four months to build the new track.

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