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WSU, Pullman airport near deal

The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport, seen here in 2017, is undergoing a $140 million renovation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport, seen here in 2017, is undergoing a $140 million renovation. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington State University regents will decide Wednesday whether to accept a $15.3 million real estate offer from the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport.

That amount – reached through an administrative settlement after more than a year of negotiations – is more than the airport initially offered to pay to acquire land for a major runway expansion.

WSU officials say it’s still not enough to cover the costs of replacing buildings and relocating agricultural research projects near the end of the runway. But they appear ready to accept the offer given the importance of air service to the isolated college town. The runway does not meet federal design standards for modern commercial planes, so failure to expand would result in a shutdown.

“We know that this project needs to move forward,” said Richard Koenig, the chairman of WSU’s crop and soil sciences department, who participated in the negotiations. “It’s important to WSU and the greater community. But it also has a cost to WSU as well.”

The deal before the regents involves selling 125 acres of land and a 17-acre easement to the airport, plus a 7.5-acre easement for Avista power lines. At the same time, the airport would transfer less than 3 acres to the university.

WSU spokesman Matt Haugen said the proposed acquisitions include 29 university buildings totaling more than 53,000 square feet, 15 acres of land planted to fruit trees and another 43 acres that are part of the Tukey Horticultural Orchard.

The deal also requires approval from the Pullman City Council.

The $119 million runway expansion broke ground last summer and aims to accommodate a growing number of commercial flights in and out of Pullman. It’s paid for primarily with federal money; a little more than 8 percent is coming from various donors and the cities of Pullman and Moscow.

Airport director Tony Bean said the new runway should be operational by October 2019. It will be longer, wider and rotated several degrees counterclockwise.

WSU and airport officials spent months battling over the definition of “functional replacement” – a legal requirement that means the airport needs to pay the university enough to replace buildings and maintain certain operations.

Bean described the $15.3 million as an “all-inclusive” figure that includes the assessed value of each affected building, but Koenig said it falls short of an internal university estimate and doesn’t account for the cost of new construction.

“The settlement amount isn’t anywhere near that internal estimate,” Koenig said.

Bean declined to say how much the airport initially offered, and Koenig declined to state the amount of the school’s internal cost estimate.

Koenig did, however, say that some resarch projects have been delayed or placed on hold in anticipation of the runway deal. Some apple trees, for example, have been left in pots and won’t be planted in the ground for another year, he said.

Much of the property involved in the deal will fall within the trapezoidal “runway protection zone” at the western approach of extended runway. WSU officials have said they would not be able to continue agricultural research there because low-flying planes might stress out livestock animals.

Those animals, many of which are involved in sensitive experiments, will need to be strategically relocated as construction on the new runway begins.

“It’s pretty complex how we’re going to move into that space and how they’re going to move out of it,” Bean said. “That’s going to have to happen simultaneously.”

The university is preparing to begin design work on new buildings at two other properties it owns. Animal research programs impacted by the runway project would be relocated to a dairy farm southwest of Pullman, while Tukey Orchard functions would be moved south to a farm used for wheat, barley and legume breeding.

WSU officials have expressed concerns that the runway project would disrupt research and jeopardize millions of dollars in grant funding. Koenig said the university may need to work with smaller facilities and reconsider research priorities.

“That’s just the reality we have to live with,” he said.

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