Kenai’s city council met Tuesday in a work session to discuss a growing problem near the airport — trees that have gotten too tall.
The city owns and operates the airport, but the Federal Aviation Administration sets certain requirements about safety and operations that the city must comply with. Tree height is one of them, one branch of many avigation-related concerns. There are about 1,800 trees taller than the FAA requirements allow, and another 800 that are close to the maximum height. Some of the problematic foliage is on city land; some on private property. The largest swath of trees border the airport
City Manager Rick Koch said the administration’s plan was to focus on trees living on city land before it worried about those on private land.
The city council has not yet approved a final plan of work, and likely won’t do so until after at least one more public meeting to consider its options.
But the plan Koch outlined would first take care of trees on city land. The city would trim trees, leaving a buffer between the airport and neighborhoods. It would also plant new trees and shrubs that don’t grow as tall, so that later on, those trees could replace their too-tall brethren. Closest to the runway, some trees would be removed.
Later, the city would work with property owners on a similar plan for their own trees. But that wouldn’t happen until after the first phase of work.
The cost of trimming and chopping and reforestation would likely be shared by the FAA and the state government.
Casey Madden, a consultant who has worked on the project, talked about some of the FAA requirements. Essentially, the administration sets a certain height that must be free of obstructions for pilots to navigate into the airport.
Sometimes those obstructions can simply be lighted, but providing lights for all the trees likely wouldn’t solve the problem, Madden said.
Madden said that the FAA has told the city verbally that if the city trees were handled, the letter of correction would be handled and there would be additional time to deal with privately owned trees.
If city trees are the first project and private trees are the second, Madden said a third project would likely be needed eventually. Trees that are not on land with avigation easements might grow to tall. At some point, the city needs to negotiate how to handle those trees, as well.
Madden worked on mapping the canopy near the airport, and said that the effort involved aerial photography. Some of the trees may have grown since the mapping was done, he said. Those efforts also evaluated other options, such as lighting trees and different levels of cutting.
Residents near the airport spoke about the planned work at Tuesday’s meeting. Many comments were rooted in concerns about aesthetics and property values.
Susan Bradley, who lives on Float Plane Road, said she was glad her neighborhood wouldn’t lose all of the foliage that separates it from the airport.
“I’m very happy to hear that the hedging is going to happen,” Bradley said.
But she urged the council to consider another option: moving the runway. Bradley said this is a good opportunity to make that move, and many years down the road, the runway may outgrow its current footprint.
Les Bradley echoed the movement idea. Bradley has a long history with aviation, including plenty of time flying and a ownership of a small airstrip in Fairbanks. He said moving the runway was probably the most sensible long-term solution.
Other residents, including Mike Wiles, supported that idea.
Wiles said he understood that the FAA’s regulations are important, but he felt that the city was throwing residents under the bus in favor of grant money.
“To me the bottom line is that it’s all about money,” he said.
Koch said that extending the runway wasn’t an option currently being discussed. An extension, however, would likely be to make it longer, not to move it entirely. And the cost might be prohibitive: $15 million for working on the end and $100 million to move the airport.
Residents also asked that trees be topped in a natural-looking way.
The council also discussed the implications of not meeting the FAA’s standards beyond reduced FAA funding.
Koch said the frequency of flights allowed at the airport could be reduced, and some forms of navigation might no longer be allowed.
At the request of the council, city attorney Krista Stearns offered her take on issues that could arise.
Stearns said the FAA could possibly attempt to reach back and take funding it had already doled out to the city. Kenai might also open itself up to liability if there were ever a problem that arose from the trees.
The city has a Sept. 30 deadline to handle the problem in response to the letter of correction the FAA issued about the trees. Because of nesting season, any work likely can’t begin until late summer or fall, but Koch said the city needs to make a plan and pursue action so that the FAA can see progress being made.
The council did not set a date for another discussion, but will see an item to move forward with funding for continued planning on a regular meeting agenda.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.