A clear-cut controversy: City meets to discuss the airport tree-cutting
The South Lake Tahoe City Council held a closed session at their meeting Tuesday to get briefed on the facts of a growing controversy surrounding a five-acre clear-cut on the north end of the city’s airport.
Airport maintenance crews were acting under the direction of airport manager Smokey Rickerd when they removed at least 186 trees over Memorial Day weekend, according to City Councilmember Mike Weber. Maintenance crews work every day, including weekends, Weber said.
Rickerd did not return two calls over two days.
Weber declined to comment on the situation until he learned more, and just provided what he understood were the facts.
“There was a permit,” he said. “And the interpretation was that the permit was allowable for the purpose of the work that was taking place. The state department of transportation and FAA had ordered the trees be removed for safety reasons.”
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency alleges the city removed far more trees than the permit allowed. Agency officials have said this could be one of the largest non-accidental violations on record of environmental policy in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The city and the TRPA have been trading pot shots for the past several months over who has ultimate authority over airport operations. Weber has been a staunch advocate for the airport as the city’s representative on the TRPA Governing Board.
TRPA officials cite a judge’s opinion from a legal fight in the 1980s that found the agency retains authority over airport operations when they impact the environment. TRPA’s authority is not subjugated to the FAA, the opinion says, because Congress authorized the creation of both the TRPA and the FAA.
The Upper Truckee River is thought to be a major source of sediment from erosion, which is thought to be a large factor in Lake Tahoe’s declining water clarity. Several trees were cut along the banks of the river.
The California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautic Division said in April it would discontinue night operations if certain safety measures were not met. Only small planes are allowed to fly into the airport at night, due to a settlement agreement on noise standards from 1987 between the airport, the TRPA and the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
TRPA alleges the city violated the conditions of its tree-removal permit from the California Department of Forestry, which allowed for cutting 100 trees less than 10 inches in diameter.
The agency issued a cease and desist order on May 30 when it discovered that more than 100 trees were cut, that a good portion of them were much larger than 10 inches, and several were cut down along the bank of the river.
Work allegedly continued and the agency issued another desist order on June 2.
Based on TRPA’s legal precedent, the city could face a fine of $430,000 if TRPA successfully prosecutes the alleged violation. It could also face significant restoration costs, which is usually a component of a violation resolution.
The TRPA Governing Board must approve any such fine.