The Grand Forks airport’s board of commissioners on Thursday signed off on beginning the process to acquire private land that abuts the airport’s property, the latest move in a project to extend the airport’s crosswind runway.

The decision could lead to the use of eminent domain, if nearby landowners opt not to sell.

In total, there are four parcels that need to be acquired – three on the west side of the airport that run along County Road 5, and one on the east side that’s owned by the city of Grand Forks. The Airport Authority has submitted to the city a request for a transfer of the city-owned land. According to Ryan Riesinger, executive director of Grand Forks International Airport, the city has forwarded that request to Dan Gaustad, city attorney.

Acquiring privately-owned land, however, follows a different process. All of the owners have been notified of the airport’s intent to purchase the land. What comes next is an appraisal of those parcels, followed by a review appraisal, which will be used to determine the land’s fair market value. Based on those assessments, the board will make its initial offer of just compensation to the land owners.

“Our project for land acquisition is underway,” Riesinger said during the board’s regular meeting Thursday, Feb. 25. “Appraisals of the parcels of land are to be completed soon.”

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The board moved to hire Bismarck-based Dakota Appraisal and Consulting to conduct the initial appraisal, for a fee of $20,000. Valbridge Property Advisors, a national property valuation advisory firm, will conduct the review for a fee of $10,000. The fees raised questions in the meeting about why they are so high, considering the land is farmland, or “raw land.”

If the landowners believe the price is not fair, or choose not to sell their land, the airport may attempt to acquire the land through eminent domain. The fees will include retaining highly qualified appraisers, who would be able to speak, in court if necessary, to the fairness of the price offered to the landowners.

“Quite candidly, in the event that we have to go through eminent domain proceedings in order to acquire some of this land, I want the most qualified appraiser money can buy to be our expert witness when it comes time to present either deposition testimony, or trial testimony if needed,” said Tim Dittus, the airport’s legal counsel.

During Thursday’s meeting, Riesinger and various other meeting attendees said they hope to avoid having to take legal action. But for the board, the clock is ticking. Riesinger said he hopes to have purchase agreements in place with the landowners by the end of May, a deadline of sorts for the airport’s runway project.

“It's certainly not the preferred alternative,” Dittus said of the possibility of using eminent domain. “These folks are your neighbors, right?”

According to Riesinger, the Federal Aviation Administration will not issue a grant for runway work until there is a purchase agreement in place. Also, the airport needs to notify airlines, in this case Delta and Allegiant, a year in advance of the construction work, if that work takes place on the intersection between the airport’s two runways. There are, however, other construction projects – projects that don’t involve the intersection – that can happen to keep the work on track. Work is scheduled to begin in 2022.

At present, the crosswind runway is only able to be used for general aviation and UND flight training. Extending the crosswind runway to the west, which requires buying the land parcels as well as rerouting County Road 5, would allow commercial airplanes to land on both of the airport’s runways. That would allow the main runway to be shut down in times of repair, and without loss of commercial flight service to the region.

In other news from Thursday’s meeting of the Airport Board of Commissioners:

● The board voted to hire Mead & Hunt, a national engineering and architecture firm, to assist with land acquisition activities, including land surveys, legal descriptions of the land and reviews of the appraisals. Of the fee, 90% of the $69,229.82 would be covered by federal funding and 5% would be covered by state funding.

● Mead & Hunt also will conduct a necessary engineering survey of the crosswind runway. The company will take dozens of soil borings and pavement core samples, then conduct an analysis of the samples. That will cost the airport $140,141.49, but 95% will be covered by federal and state funding.

● The board signed off on a pair of federal grants for the airport. Through the federal Airport Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, GFK will receive more than $1.4 million to prevent and respond to COVID-19. A second grant for approximately $25,000 is meant to provide relief from losses stemming from parking fees and restaurant operations, among others.

● GFK, like all commercial airports, is now under a federal mask mandate, as of Feb. 1. It’s the fourth mandate seen at the airport, which started with the city, state and county. The mandate has exceptions for eating and drinking, but is more restrictive than others, and people in violation of the order could potentially face federal penalties.