Editorial: Airport tree cutting: Take a deep breath
What we know: The City of South Lake Tahoe removed nearly 400 trees during the month of May from an airport approach to comply with Federal Aviation Administration safety mandates.
What remains to be determined: Whether the city violated a California Division of Forestry permit that limited the removal to 100 trees, and if so what penalties will be imposed on the city by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which regulates tree removal in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The chasm between these two points in time – the alleged illegal tree cutting and the yet-to-be-determined penalties – seems to be backfilling with rhetoric, name calling and irrelevant debate.
On one side, some argue that safety concerns trump permission for the tree removal, and therefore the tree removal was legal. On the other, opponents of the tree-removal are charging the city with conspiracy and flagrant violation of the law. Many on both sides showed up to Thursday’s TRPA governing board meeting to have their voices heard. But in the end, the investigation may reveal a different explanation.
What if the city simply violated the permit by mistake? What if city workers, acting outside the chain of the command, took it upon themselves to interpret the permit? What if the chain of command simply broke down? What if the permit was irrelevant, and the FAA’s mandate supersedes TRPA jurisdiction? What if the TRPA has been a difficult player in the city’s past attempts to secure permission to make the airport safe?
All of these circumstances are plausible, and all point away from the vitriol that has surrounded the issue so far. The debate over tree-cutting has even expanded to whether the city should own and support the airport at a cost of $500,000-plus a year. While that is a worthwhile question, it is separate from the tree-cutting incident, which will be adjudicated, possibly by the TRPA board of governors and maybe even in a court of law.
Undoubtedly, mistakes were made during the tree cut, and the city has said as much: The TRPA’s jurisdiction relative to the airport, if challenged by the city, should have been determined before the axes fell; city workers, in removing the trees, should have followed the permit restrictions to the letter, etc. The city needs to provide a transparent account of its investigation and exactly what happened (soon) – before that happens we just don’t know exactly where to lay blame.
If a violation is determined to have occurred, the city should make its apology public and take corrective action – maybe even personnel action – so it never happens again. Until the wheels of justice finish turning, the evidence is digested and a judgment and possible sentence is imposed, bickering over what may have happened isn’t helping solve the problem.