The brand new village of Mertarvik is one step closer to having a commercial runway. Last week, the Newtok Native Corporation finalized a land sale with the Alaska Department of Transportation that will allow the DOT to build a new airstrip. The negotiation for that deal took over seven months.
Mertarvik, the replacement village for Newtok residents, is currently without a commercial runway. Without regular flights to the community, that has meant limited groceries and no mail delivery. Worse, it has prevented medevac planes from being able to land, lengthening the time it takes for people to receive emergency medical care. Village leaders say that the lack of an airport contributed to at least one resident’s death.
The Newtok Native Corporation’s attorney, Sam Fortier, said that the Alaska Department of Transportation made an initial offer to buy the land for an airstrip in Mertarvik back in early February, over seven months ago. He said that even for contract negotiations, seven months is a long time.
“It is, especially when you consider how badly Newtok needs its new runway,” Fortier said.
He said that the corporation disagreed with the state’s original appraisal of the land. But also, Fortier said that there was a parcel of land that the state wanted the subsurface rights to. Fortier said that land contains 600,000 cubic yards of gravel.
“The state thought it was going to walk away with the gravel, and it didn't get to,” Fortier said.
Instead, the Newtok Native Corporation will keep the subsurface rights for the gravel, which it plans to sell to the state’s contractor to build the airport. Plus, the corporation convinced the state to reappraise the land. It will now receive $330,000 in the sale. This impressed Fortier, an attorney who has represented village corporations for decades.
“I think this is the first time I've ever seen this successful of a negotiation on the part of a village corporation,” Fortier said. “My hat is totally off to the Newtok Native Corporation board.”
DOT spokesperson Shannon McCarthy declined to comment on the deal, citing federal laws prohibiting providing details about acquisitions. McCarthy said earlier that the Mertarvik airstrip will cost between $30 million to $40 million to build, with over 90% of that money coming from the federal government. She said that construction would begin by the spring of 2021, and be finished by the fall of 2022.
For Lisa Charles, a Newtok Native Corporation board member and Mertarvik resident, the runway’s completion can’t come soon enough.
“I wish we could get it done faster because we really need the airport over here,” Charles said.
Charles said that she is looking forward to getting her mail, groceries, and being one step closer to the hospital.