Friday, April 25, 2014

South St. Paul homes in airport buffer zones to be removed - some day

It was obvious to Tim and Linda Stromgren when they bought their South St. Paul house that planes would fly overhead. 

The two-story house that they bought in 2007 sits directly across the street from the end of the runway at Richard E. Fleming Field, a city-owned and operated airport that averages 63,700 flights annually.

What they say they didn't know at the time is their house is one of two located in a "runway protection zone," which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as a trapezoidal area off either end of a runway and meant to safeguard people and property in case a plane lands there or crashes.

Now, the city says the FAA wants the houses removed.

"We're apparently in some sort of safety zone," Linda Stromgren said.

The city first told the Stromgrens as much in 2012, while also explaining that they plan to buy the house.

What they still don't know is when.

"It's like we're living in limbo," said Stromgren. "And it's a horrible feeling."

The two South Street houses are just part of what must be removed in order for the city to comply with federal and state requirements concerning land-use compatibility and airspace obstructions, said Glenn Burke, airport manager.

An environmental assessment of the area around the airport also pinpointed 37 trees in South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights that are considered to be in "clear zones," Burke said. South St. Paul must purchase the trees and remove them. The cost depends on the type of tree and age. Or the trees can be trimmed at the homeowner's expense.

An additional 163 trees are identified as being close to becoming an obstruction.

The north runway protection zone also encroaches into the front yards of two other houses along South Street, which means the city will have to buy navigation easements from the property owners.

All four of the houses were built before the FAA had established the runway protection zones, Burke said.

And up until three years ago, the FAA had given the city leeway because Fleming Field is in a built-up urban area and the buildings have been there for more than 50 years, he said. The agency then directed the city to do the environmental assessment and paid for it.

Over the past four years, the city has cut down about 50 trees in yards around the airport in South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights -- and reimbursed the homeowners for doing so.

"We've made progress over the years," he said, "but probably not enough to satisfy the FAA, who is saying we've got some real issues here, as far as their concerned."

On the line for South St. Paul is future grant money from the FAA, he said.

"The last thing I want to do is make my neighbors mad," Burke said. "But (the FAA) sort of put down the gauntlet and said we're not going to give you any more money unless you address these issues. So that got our attention."

The city is eligible for grants from the agency that would go toward paying for 90 percent of the acquisition cost and other work, an FAA spokeswoman said. South St. Paul officials plan to pay the remaining cost.

Also targeted for removal are 32 parking spaces at McMorrow Field -- a neighborhood park adjacent to the airport and across the street from the Stromgrens.

This spring, the city also removed a three-acre community garden from the north runway protection zone that had been there since the 1990s.

In October, the city sent letters to residents who will be impacted by the planned work as well to other residents who live in blocks that are contiguous to the airport.

Next month, the city will host a meeting so residents can ask city staff questions and voice their concerns, Burke said. It will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 13 at the airport terminal building.

Burke said the city will appraise the Stromgren's house and their neighbor's house -- a duplex that is owned by Bernadine Bosworth -- with the goal of giving them fair-market value for them. The city will also give them relocation costs.

The Stromgrens say they would rather stay in their home, for which they paid $257,000, but also realize their options are limited.

"It's not that we want to fight this thing tooth and nail," Linda Stromgren said. "We want to be treated fairly and we want to be kept up to date with everything that is happening. We have no idea of when. Two Christmases ago we didn't know if it was our last Christmas here."

Bosworth, who is retired, said she is more welcoming to the open of moving than Stromgrens. She's lived in the duplex since 1968, including raising her two sons.

"I'm at an age where I'm ready to leave," she said.

Burke said there is no FAA deadline for buying the houses or a target date for the city to get into compliance.

"We will buy them when the FAA says they have the money for us and say to jump," said Burke, adding that could come as early as October, which is the start of the agency's next budget cycle.

The trees that are in the runway protection zones or in runway approach areas will receive first priority, he said.

Mike Kubiszewski says he sees no reason why the airport needs to cut down six mature trees in the back yard of his home in Inver Grove Heights.

"I've never seen or heard of navigation issues with these trees, and I've talked with pilots," Kubiszewski said. He said planes land at least 300 feet west from his property when on approach.

But the trees -- and others on three nearby properties -- are on land easements the airport secured in 1980s, Burke said.

"The city hasn't maintained these trees and now they want to take them down and remove all my shade and leave my yard bare," said Kubiszewski, who bought his house in 2001. "I don't agree with it."