Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Lawsuit seeks to stop Bowman Field tree cutting

Federal Aviation Administration also rejects call by federal advisory council to come up with a better mitigation plan to offset historical impacts from cutting.



Plans to remove or trim trees near Bowman Field will have no significant consequences on the environment or historical character of the leafy neighborhoods, parks and golf courses near its runways, the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded.

Whether the pronouncement ends a five-year controversy remained unclear Wednesday afternoon, as critics of the tree cutting filed a lawsuit seeking to keep the chainsaws at bay.

Although the Louisville Regional Airport Authority had already decided to go ahead with the purchase of new airspace easements and tree cutting without the FAA's blessings, the announcement Wednesday was welcomed anyway by local officials.

"We feel really good about that," said Charles T. “Skip” Miller, the authority's executive director. "There's been a lot of work and energy put into that program." While Miller had earlier this year complained about the slow pace of the FAA, he praised the federal agency Wednesday by saying he was pleased with its effort.

Environmental and other relevant concerns have been addressed sufficiently by the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, said Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman. "The environmental review process is complete and the (airport authority) may proceed with the project," Bergen said.  That conclusion scored a big win by the authority over some of its airport neighbors, who have argued that environmental and historic reviews were insufficient.

"Clearly, the environmental assessment was inadequate," said attorney Tom FitzGerald, with the Kentucky Resources Council, who represents the group Plea for Trees.

"The FAA has violated ... laws in failing to evaluate prudent and feasible alternatives to harming public parkland and historic properties and undertaking all possible planning to minimize harm to these resources," FitzGerald claimed in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

One of the problems, FitzGerald has said, is that a "reasonable" alternative of routing planes to nearby airports during low visibility was not evaluated.

The Plea for Trees lawsuit against the FAA and the LRAA claims both failed to make up for the "losses to the community from the permanent removal of extensive tree canopies."

The airport authority last week said its field work would resume this week, with tree cutting to occur this winter, with or without the FAA's approval and completion of the environmental review, and Miller said on Wednesday the authority would respond "appropriately" to any legal challenges.

Airport officials have long cut and trimmed trees near the ends of the general aviation airport runways but five years ago in December, they told neighbors they needed to expand the cutting to safely maintain the airport's function including in dark or low visibility conditions.

Carol Kaufmann, who lives near on the runway approaches, and one of three individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said airport officials have tried to buy airspace above her home to cut two trees. "I'm holding out," she said, adding that her trees and others in the area provide homes for many different kinds of birds and cooling shade.

She said she fears airport officials are trying to clear the Bowman approaches to drum up more corporate jet business and turn Bowman Field into more of a regional airport. "I would like to keep the character of the neighborhood."

Miller said the authority has the ability to purchase the airspace easements from unwilling sellers through the power of eminent domain.

"We will try to not use it," he said. "We are engaged in discussions with a number of residents out there."

Airport authority officials have said they have no plans to add a runway or extend the two existing runways at Bowman Field or allow larger or heavier aircraft to use the airfield. The FAA  said the goal of the project is to restore airport conditions to the way they were in 2012, allowing for nighttime instrument approaches.

The studies looked at a few different alternatives, including doing nothing, or putting lights on trees, and agreed with a plan to acquire easements on 44 properties and trim or replace 104 trees that penetrate or are within ten feet of penetrating the airspace.

But bid documents actually identify 195 trees total with 138 of them to be removed, 53 to be trimmed and four to be transplanted. That's on top of other tree removal and trimming done since 2011 under existing airspace easements. Airport officials have said they are removing more trees at residents' request.

They have offered homeowners a two-for-one replacement, but with shorter growing trees.

Miller said LRAA has offered additional mitigation to Louisville Metro Parks, promising to provide five new trees for every tree removed. He said the authority is willing to replace each tree removed from a city right of way three new trees.

But in what is sure to be a controversial finding, the FAA also has rejected the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's earlier conclusion that the tree cutting would have no adverse impacts on the historical character of the neighborhoods near the airport. It argues that there is a "natural cycle and historic pattern of residential subdivisions" that "includes a change in the mixture of tree species, age and height as trees mature and are removed and replaced."

The historic preservation council in a Nov. 3 letter urged the FAA and local airport officials to develop a more robust plan to offset damage to the historical character of neighborhoods. But the FAA, in justifying its position, argued that the cutting would not eliminate all the mature trees in the neighborhood - rather, "that selective trimming of taller trees would be in keeping with the historic character, and would not be cumulatively or foreseeably adverse."

The Plea for Trees lawsuit calls the FAA decision to disregard the advisory council's recommendation "arbitrary and capricious and otherwise inconsistent with law."

FAA officials did not immediately make the full environmental assessment available.

Story and comments:   http://www.courier-journal.com

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