Kenai cemetery 'landscaping' for airport access raises ire of city council members

Cropped trees flat-out unacceptable

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

There were some very unhappy city council members at Wednesday night's meeting in Kenai.

They weren't unhappy about taxes or state revenue sharing or road maintenance. They were unhappy because nearly 50 of the approximately 170 trees in the Kenai Municipal Cemetery are now less than half as tall as they were just two days before.

At its previous meeting on March 15, the Kenai City Council did not disagree with the administration's plan to reduce the height of trees surrounding the airport, because it had to be done to comply with Federal Aviation Administra-tion regulations.

Airport manager Rebecca Cronkhite told the council last month, and again Wednesday night, that the FAA is due in town on May 3 to conduct a survey of the airport.

"They will shoot our approach and if we are out of compliance, we will get written up," Cronkhite said.

Being written up could jeopardize the city's annual share of federal airport money.

"Shooting" the approach means the height of all objects off both ends of the runway will be measured to see if they are too tall. Many trees in the cemetery stood 70 feet by some estimates, and have probably been out of compliance for years, if not decades.

After Monday's trimming, they are 20 feet tall or less.

"What has been done so far is totally unacceptable," said council member Jim Bookey. "I don't want to give all the trees crew cuts."

Individually, some trees look worse than others. Generally, the larger diameter trees -- the oldest and formerly tallest -- are the most unsightly, with large bushy boughs and flat tops. With a little pruning, they could almost pass as topiary, or shaped ornamental trees. Younger trees might develop branches near the top and could wind up looking almost normal in a few years.

But the largest trees, cut from 60 to 70 feet down to 20 feet, might not survive very long.

"I don't want to spend a lot of time or money on trees that only have a year or two left," Bookey said.

"I've probably torn down more trees than anyone else," added Bookey, an excavator by trade. "You can cut 15 feet (from a tree) and survive, but cutting three-fourths of a 60- to 70-foot tree, what is the survival of that?"

Steve Booth, a landscape architect brought in to consult with the city on the problem, said every tree is different, but generally 50 percent of a tree can be taken and it will survive.

"Well, they've taken a lot more than that," Bookey replied.

Council member Pat Porter asked Cronkhite what options there are other than cutting the trees, such as marking or lighting the tallest ones.

"We could put flags on them if the airport was only used in the day, but for nighttime operations, we need to light them," Cronkhite said. "In my research, I could only find one tree that's lighted, and that's in Cheyenne, Wyo. It's an old oak near the governor's mansion that is a national landmark."

Which leaves topping or cutting down as the only options remaining under FAA rules. But the council did settle on another course of action, at the suggestion of Mayor John Williams.

"The FAA can be brought to understand that this issue is embarrassing not only for us, but for them," Williams said. "We can see what their response is to telling them we are out of compliance."

But Cronkhite was clear that her focus was the safety of the flying public and the citizens who live below the flight path of arriving and departing airplanes.

"My duty is safety first. Liability-wise, we need to address this," she said. "I urge you not to try to delay coming into compliance."

Since it is public knowledge that the city knows the airport is out of compliance, Cronkhite said, any accident caused by trees encroaching into the air space would open the city up to lawsuits.

When asked if a notice to airmen, or a NOTAM as the aviation industry calls it, could be issued warning pilots of the tall trees, Cronkhite said the FAA does issue NOTAMs for problems that can be fixed.

"Well, we've made a mistake, the window is broke, and now we have to fix it," Bookey said.

He suggested removing the most odious trees, and those least likely to survive, and do no more topping until the FAA can be consulted.

Council member Linda Swarner agreed.

"Trees with very few branches below should be removed," Swarner said. "I don't cut trees, so this is very hard for me."

Cronkhite said there will be no more topping, and city officials will meet with the FAA next week in Anchorage to see if there is any exception or leeway in its regulations for preserving the trees.

In the meantime, she and the landscape consultants will flag trees that in their opinion won't recover from the topping.

"Then I intend to get second opinions from council," Cronkhite said. "I want them to have an opportunity to review our selections. I certainly intend to consult the council."

One thing that council members took particular exception to was the clutter left around the cemetery Monday night. Apparently, according to City Manager Rick Ross, the contractor, D and L Construction, left the cut tops of trees resting on graves overnight.

"I wish they weren't left laying there," Cronkhite said. "It was very offensive."

Ross was equally dismayed.

"We can't regulate common sense," he said. "It's how they left their job site at night. ...

"We're not bad-mouthing the contractor. We just need someone more familiar with landscaping."

Cronkhite said the city and D and L are dissolving their $5,000 contract by mutual agreement.

"The airport hired the contractor to cut the trees, and we don't want to give the impression that the contractor is at fault for the trees being cut," Cronkhite said. "The trees were cut to what the contractor understood to be the specifications."

Representatives of D and L Construction could not be reached for comment.

Looking for the silver lining, Porter said this event might be an opportunity to re-landscape the cemetery. Bookey agreed, suggesting the use of slow growing trees to avoid future problems.

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