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Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport board votes to seek eminent domain

By Chelsea Embree Lewiston Tribune

PULLMAN – If the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport needs to use eminent domain to acquire land for its expansion project, it will have the authority to seek it out.

The airport’s board voted Wednesday in favor of authorizing Executive Director Tony Bean to request condemnation on an as-needed basis as part of the project. Mel Taylor, the board member who represents Washington State University, abstained.

The university and the airport have been involved in negotiations for the purchase of more than 100 acres of WSU land, which includes about 40 research facilities and part of Tukey Orchard. The land is part of the proposed runway protection zone, which is required to remain vacant for safety reasons as part of the project.

The $119 million airport expansion project will realign and extend the runway, addressing issues with the proximity of the taxiway to the runway, winter fog and a limited flight approach pattern. The project will allow the airport to maintain commercial flight operations in the future.

Nearly all the board members were in agreement Wednesday that using eminent domain to acquire land should come as a last resort.

“I’m not asking this lightly in any way, shape or form,” Bean said. “… Without having everything on the table that you actually can utilize, it hampers the ability of the board. It takes time to put all of this stuff into place.”

Bean will have to request the approval of both the cities of Moscow and Pullman prior to initiating eminent domain proceedings, he said.

Kevin Mulcaster of Mead and Hunt, one of the project’s consultants, said allowing for the use of eminent domain could act as a “motivating factor” for landowners who have not yet responded to the airport’s land purchase offers.

“The project has been set up with a schedule to open up the runway in 2018, and if we don’t have the ability to drive the schedule or maintain that schedule, it’s a cascading effect,” he said.

Paul Kimmell, the board member representing Latah County, said eminent domain is a tool that the airport’s expansion project requires, if it’s necessary to advance the project.

“I’m confident that we can be very judicious and cautious with this,” Kimmell said. “It’s a very transparent, careful, legally protective process for both sides.”

Ron Wachter, the at-large airport board member, made the motion to authorize Bean to seek use of the tool, but with the caveat that Bean must notify all board members via email in advance of requesting approval from the cities of Moscow and Pullman.

“Just so we know and we don’t get blindsided,” Wachter said.

Both Bean and Robert Strenge, a spokesman for WSU, said Wednesday that negotiations to acquire the university land are still in progress. University officials rejected the airport’s initial offer – of an amount that has not been disclosed.

The university has hired an appraiser and expects to have a second appraisal by July, Strenge said.

“We’re somewhat critical of the methodology that was used in the first one,” he said.

The land’s research facilities conduct studies into infectious diseases in livestock and contain about 75 animals at any given time. Bryan Slinker, dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said prior to Wednesday’s board meeting that moving or reconstructing those facilities is a cost that was not covered by the airport’s initial acquisition offer.

“We want the airport,” Slinker said. “We don’t want to stand in the way of it. But the current offer for compensation is not enough to replace those facilities.”

There are also timing issues, Slinker said. It’s not easy to find breaks in research that would allow animals to be moved, and too much disruption could threaten the integrity of the research.

It’s legally possible for the research facilities to stay where they are, but Slinker said “it’s not an option for us functionally or programmatically.”

“The only solution that works is sufficient funds that we can replace those facilities,” Slinker said.

Tukey Orchard, however, may be able to remain in its place without issue, he said.

Strenge said WSU is “not concerned” with condemnation as a land acquisition option.

“We’re doing everything we can to come to a collaborative solution on this,” he said.

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