Agencies clash over cut trees
STATELINE – Sparks flew during a legal report and public comment on the Lake Tahoe Airport tree-cutting issue Wednesday, with passionate opinions expressed about public safety on one hand, and government accountability on the other.
At the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Governing Board meeting Wednesday, Michael Baulch, manager of the emergency helicopter service CALSTAR threw his support behind airport manager Smokey Rickerd, saying he was a man of honor and integrity.
Baulch said the interaction he witnessed between TRPA staff and Rickerd confirmed what he called the public perception that agency staff are offensive.
“This conversation was nothing less than arrogant, disrespectful and condescending on the part of TRPA staff,” Baulch said. “And in relating this conversation to others in the community, I found this is a common circumstance. If there’s a reluctance at the city to deal with TRPA staff, that’s one of the reasons why.”
Baulch’s office is directly next to Rickerd’s at the airport, and Baulch was present when agency staff issued their first verbal cease-and- desist order.
Board member and former Democratic Congressman Jerome Waldie took issue with Baulch’s remarks, saying it was an attack on the board and its staff. He called it “an irresponsible public defense.”
The TRPA is investigating a clear-cut at a 5.2-acre area north of the airport. The city of South Lake Tahoe and TRPA agree 387 trees were cleared by city staff over the month of May. TRPA alleges the cut was in violation of a permit issued by the California Department of Forestry. The city contends it was mandated by Caltrans Division of Aeronautics to cut the trees for safety reasons.
Rickerd directed city maintenance staff to perform the cutting, according to city officials. Caltrans discontinued night operations at the airport on June 16 for safety reasons.
The CDF-issued permit limited the number of trees to 100 per year under 10 inches in diameter. When city attorney Catherine DiCamillo took the stand, Schwarzenegger appointee Julie Motamedi said the permit stipulates if additional trees must be cut, the permittee must contact the TRPA.
DiCamillo responded: “To my knowledge, that was not done.”
Waldie asked about the permit language that required marking of trees before they were cut.
DiCamillo responded: “That was not done and it has not been done for a couple of years.”
DiCamillo took issue with TRPA lead lawyer Joanne Marchetta’s assessment of the facts to the board.
“Every opportunity TRPA gets, they put the word “clear-cut” in front (to appeal to people’s emotions),” DiCamillo said. “If you are cutting trees down for flight safety, you have to clear all the trees. We didn’t cut the trees for the last three or four years. We are behind, we are far behind.”
Marchetta originally said the cutting took place over Memorial Day weekend, but after a question from Weber, she said “I did not mean to imply they were all cut over Memorial Day weekend.”
DiCamillo was not mild in chastising Marchetta for the mistake.
“The purpose of that was to make it look like this was a surreptitious action. The fact is it was done over the entire month of May,” she said.
Board member and Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz said the agency issued a press release before a full investigation was conducted.
“I asked that our press release not be released because there is difference of opinion,” Kranz said. Marchetta responded: “We are in a media age. Information is disseminated and opinions formed almost instantaneously. What we try to do is try to be generally responsive to press inquiries without articulating positions.”
Highlights from public comments on the airport issue:
Homeowner R.S. Lynn:
“Public perception of TRPA even-handedness is at risk here.”
Duane Wallace, South Lake Tahoe chamber director:
“You heard the League state this is an indictment of the airport and whether it’s economically viable or not. If you stick to the issue at hand, we will support you.”
Former South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tom Davis:
“This is not about a rich property owner cutting down a tree so he or she can view Lake Tahoe. This is purely about safety. This is about saving lives. You can mitigate for a lost tree, you cannot mitigate a life.”
Phil Herback with Park Cattle Co. and Gaming Alliance:
“We limited the airport’s operating hours at a time when all businesses in town have been building up to the summer season. If there’s any way for the board to allow the airport to operate, I’m here to ask the board to give that consideration.”
Marchetta’s response: Caltrans discontinued night operations as a result of “the city not continuing cutting of trees.”
Michael Donahoe, co-chair of Tahoe Area Sierra Club:
“One of the reasons that the board and the agency do not have the credibility is the perception that there are different rules for different folks. Treat this as strongly as you have treated other issues in the past.”
John Friedrich, League to Save Lake Tahoe:
“If this is leading by example, Lake Tahoe is in trouble. TRPA needs to send the message that the government is at least as responsible as private property owners. The broader question is: are all of the operations as currently structured or intended worth the environmental and social costs to residents at Lake Tahoe?”
Zephyr Cove resident Kay Edwards:
“Aren’t we at war in Iraq to force democracy on a foreign country, because we believe it brings law and order? Meanwhile here in South Lake Tahoe, city employees disregard rules. Isn’t that anarchy instead of democracy? This is simply astounding. How many city leaders are covering up for their involvement?”