Guest view: Working toward a resolution to airport tree controversy
Members of the City Council, the City Attorney and I are very concerned about recent tree-cutting and existing safety issues at the airport. We are nearing completion of our review of all facts and circumstances surrounding the matter, and we will proceed with necessary corrective action to address all outstanding issues. I understand that Tribune readers, members of concerned and interested organizations and other people inside and outside of the community are upset and concerned about the issues surrounding this action. I respect those concerns, and they deserve to know why it happened.
I told Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Lahontan executives of the city’s intention and willingness to cooperate fully with all responsible agencies to address the tree-cutting issue and all safety-related issues at the airport. Members of the City Council and I are mindful of and respect the rule of law and the need for city employees to obey the law and exercise prudent judgment in actions taken. All of us should be mindful of preserving and protecting our precious environment and protecting our residents and visitors to South Lake Tahoe and our region, and we must take responsibility for our actions.
By way of background, I am told the city has been removing trees in the airport safety zones (areas defined as the approach and take-off areas beyond the existing runways) in conformance with federal and state requirements since 1984. In years past, tree removal has been greater than in other years. I am advised that since 2002, personnel from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and California State Division of Aeronautics expressed growing concerns and increasing impatience with the city’s efforts to remove trees in the flight path that they viewed as obstructions, and they have been increasingly critical of the lack of obstruction removal. The Division of Aeronautics has identified those trees that they say need to be removed for flight operations safety and the number is many more than the number of trees removed in May-June 2006.
The recent round of tree removal began by city airport personnel after an April 2006 inspection by the Division of Aeronautics was highly critical of the lack of tree- removal work, and a deadline for all tree removal was set at June 5, 2006. Airport personnel secured a TRPA permit for tree removal which was issued by the California Division of Forestry under an operating agreement between CDF and TRPA and began work in May. This is the same process the city used in the past to secure tree-cutting permits. The tree cutting occurred throughout the month of May. City officials were specifically told that city airport crews undertaking the work were doing so in accordance with their permit. City airport management also told us recently that they undertook the work that is arguably outside of the permit out of a belief and conviction that they were required to do so because of specific direction of the State Division of Aeronautics to comply with FAA clearances within a specified time frame and references on the TRPA permit to FAA regulations. State Division of Aeronautics subsequently verified their direction in this regard. City crews did not consult with city legal counsel or city management when it became apparent to them that there was conflicting direction over the tree removal issue, nor were City Council members or city management told about limitations contained in the applicable permit.
There appears to have been a misunderstanding over the facts and conclusions surrounding the initial TRPA staff visit to the site and meeting with city airport personnel and what was understood to happen when. It was the understanding of city airport management that the oral request to stop cutting trees to be in effect for two days unless contacted again by TRPA. Not having been contacted within three days, tree cutting resumed following the earlier verbal TRPA request. The tree cutting on June 2 stopped shortly after it commenced. In my absence (vacation), when the city attorney learned of the concern over the tree cutting, she told staff not to cut any more trees, and I verified and directed staff to comply with the written cease-and-desist order upon my return from vacation. Unfortunately, after my return from vacation (June 7), the airport manager was out of town handling a family emergency until the following Monday (June 12).
Upon learning of the written TRPA cease-and-desist order, the State Division of Aeronautics issued an order closing the airport to night flight operations effective June 13 and then extended the closure to June 16. Airport management believes, and it has been confirmed by Division of Aeronautics staff, that the initial night closure order would be a precursor to further restrictions on day flights unless obstructions are removed. The city airport manager was later able to get an exception made to the night closure rule for the CALSTAR EMS helicopter to operate and respond to emergency medical service calls and service.
The city is engaging the services of a professional forester to help examine the tree-removal site and find out the best and most effective ways to address any environmental issues there and act as a consultant to the city in the future. We will then proceed with implementation of recommended actions in consultation with regulatory agencies and ensure training for city personnel on effective forestry practices and proper permitting needed for tree work on city property. City officials will fully cooperate with all regulatory agencies to address all environmental and safety issues.
The recent tree-cutting event has not been pleasant or positive for us or for our community. We are committed to work to rectify the situation and take all appropriate actions internally and externally to address all outstanding issues.
– David M. Jinkens is South Lake Tahoe’s city manager.