Officials from Washington State University and the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport still are toiling away in negotiations over a major runway expansion, a project that could jeopardize millions of dollars in agriculture research.
The $119 million project will realign and extend the runway, bringing it into compliance with federal law and allowing the airport to maintain commercial flight service. But to complete it, the airport must purchase more than 100 acres of WSU property at the western approach of the runway.
For months, the university has demanded that the airport go a step further by paying to replace up to 40 buildings that currently sit on the property. Those facilities house hundreds of livestock animals involved in sensitive long-term experiments. A piece of the Tukey Horticulture Orchard, which is used to study plant genetics, also sits in the contested area.
“With research it’s not as easy as just picking something up and putting it in the truck,” said airport director Tony Bean. “It doesn’t work that way, so we’re trying to understand that better.”
It’s legally possible for the animal research facilities to stay where they are, but WSU officials say that’s not an option. Landing planes could stress out the animals, for example.
Timing is another issue. Moving the animals and disrupting experiments could threaten the validity of the results – and, by extension, jeopardize opportunities for grant funding in the future.
The airport has made at least one offer for the university’s land, but neither party has disclosed the amount. The university later hired its own appraiser in hopes of getting a more favorable offer. Real estate appraisals are covered by exemptions in state and federal public records laws.
Airport officials have not ruled out using eminent domain to acquire the land. In May, the airport’s governing board voted to give Bean the authority to request condemnation. Board members characterized the move as a bargaining chip and said condemnation is a last resort.
Bean said the parties are meeting about once a week, adhering to a complicated process laid out by the Federal Aviation Administration. The airport is hiring specialists on land use, archaeology and other fields to help navigate the process, he said.
“It takes people who know the law very well,” he said.
One success, Bean said, was negotiating an easement that allows an Avista power line to be moved from the construction area. But WSU spokesman Rob Strenge said there haven’t been any major developments.
“It’s an ongoing process, and we’re continuing to be involved in it,” Strenge said.
In 2015, the number of passengers arriving and departing from the airport topped 100,000, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. Those numbers coincide with steadily increasing enrollment at the university.
WSU officials have made clear that they support the expansion, noting its importance to the school and the region’s economy. But they insist that the deal must protect research interests.
The new runway is supposed to be completed in 2018, but Bean said he’s not particularly worried about deadlines.
“I wish we were moving faster than we are,” he said. “But we’re moving.”
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