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WSU officials say Pullman airport project jeopardizes millions in research and facilities

Correspondent

PULLMAN – Major construction at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport could force Washington State University to replace up to 40 buildings and a large swath of farmland, jeopardizing experiments and millions of dollars in research grants, university officials say.

The airport intends to buy more than 100 acres of WSU property to complete its five-year, $119 million runway realignment project, which is widely viewed as an economic necessity for the Palouse region. But the airport’s offer for the property – the amount of which has not been made public – is not nearly enough to cover the cost of developing new research facilities, said Bryan Slinker, dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We have long-term experiments there that can’t be disrupted,” Slinker said, noting that about 750 livestock animals are kept in the area. “Even if we have all the money we need to move off of there, we still need to keep track of the construction schedule to protect our research interests and keep those animals safe.”

The realignment project has been in the planning stages for about 15 years. It aims to bring the small, outdated runway into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards, enabling it to serve larger aircraft, mitigate weather delays and cancellations, and accommodate dramatic increases in demand for flights.

In 2015, the number of passengers arriving and departing from the airport topped 100,000, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year.

WSU officials said they have expressed concerns repeatedly over several years, but project planners have done little to address them. While the university relies on the airport, the land issue could delay or shut down high-value research, they said.

“We understand the importance of air travel to Pullman and the university,” said Olivia Yang, WSU’s vice president for facilities services. “That said, our primary mission is teaching and research, and we hope our needs will be met.”

‘We have to be absolutely careful’

At issue is a trapezoidal piece of land called the “runway protection zone,” which sits at the western approach of the runway. The realignment project will create a new runway rotated 5.5 degrees counterclockwise, and the new protection zone will encompass a large section of WSU property.

That property includes 40 buildings, access roads and a quarter of the 70-acre Tukey Horticulture Orchard, where researchers study plant genetics on a collection of nearly 300 apple varieties. For safety reasons, however, FAA regulations typically ban structures, people and captive animals in runway protection zones.

Airport manager Tony Bean said a legal exemption could allow WSU to keep its facilities in the protection zone, but researchers worry low-flying planes would stress out the animals.

“That’s really not something we consider feasible,” Slinker said.

The realignment project could strain WSU’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has 140 researchers embedded on campus, said Don Knowles, a veterinarian who oversees that partnership. Much of their work involves developing vaccines and diagnostic tools for animal diseases, such as mad cow disease.

Under the airport’s plan, the university risks losing those jobs as well as $7 million in USDA funding and roughly $8.5 million in private grants each year, Knowles said.

“The animal-disease research we do in those facilities is truly important on a global scale,” he said. “And we have to be absolutely careful when we talk about moving it all around.”

Some experiments are slated to last up to five years, and moving the animals could cause them stress and jeopardize the validity of the results, Knowles said.

At the Tukey Orchard, researchers are studying apples to build an “enormous” database of genetic information, which is vital for Washington’s tree-fruit industry, said Richard Koenig, dean of WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

The realignment project could jeopardize several million dollars that the fruit industry contributes to the orchard each year, Koenig said. The trees, he said, are not ordinary apple trees but carefully bred hybrids that can’t easily be relocated.

The orchard “is more than just a collection of trees or a U-pick orchard,” he said. “We can’t just pull trees off the shelf and replant them.”

The runway protection zone also will encompass the 17th hole of the Palouse Ridge Golf Course. But golfers need not worry: Given the popularity and economic value of the course, project planners determined it’s “not feasible” to change the layout, and an exception should be made to keep the hole in its current location.

Airport officials say they’re doing what they can

An FAA spokesman said the airport offered “just compensation” for the land, but that doesn’t cover the cost of replacing the research facilities.

Bean, the airport manager, said federal law requires the land-acquisition and replacement negotiations be carried out separately.

“The offer was made on fair market value,” he said. “Fair market value is not replacement cost. Ergo, there’s a gap.”

Now that an offer for the land is on the table, the parties can talk about replacing the facilities, Bean said. He and Robert Strenge, a WSU spokesman, declined to name the amount of the offer; real estate appraisals are covered by exemptions in state and federal public records laws.

It’s not clear where those buildings would go, how much they would cost to replace or how long that process would take. However, Bean said the FAA might cover a substantial portion of the costs.

“We’re talking to the FAA daily. We’re following federal policy, and we have to follow federal policy no matter what – no matter who the affected parties are,” he said. “Of course, we want to make WSU whole if we can.”

Bean did not rule out using eminent domain to acquire the land.

“We’re not there yet,” Bean said. “Again, it’s the process, and we have to go through all the other options first.”

Construction is slated to begin this year on airport property. The FAA will cover nearly 92 percent of project costs, which are estimated at $89 million to $119 million. The city of Pullman, which owns the airport, must secure the remaining $7.2 million to $9.6 million.

During the past year, the airport has been finalizing paperwork on grants and donations from the cities of Pullman and Moscow, Idaho; Whitman and Latah counties; the Port of Whitman; the University of Idaho; the Washington and Idaho transportation departments; Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and that company’s founder, Edmund Schweitzer.

So far, the airport has secured about $9.35 million, not including $1 million that WSU pledged to give about a year ago.

“Our message has been consistent, and it’s a little frustrating that it hasn’t been heard,” Koenig said. “We support the airport … but not at the expense of these key research assets.”

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