Reporter – News Analyst
The Fernandina Beach City Commission met in a work session on Monday, June 18 for almost two hours to hear a presentation on the Airport Tree Management Plan. City Hall chambers were comfortably full with people who had been drawn to the meeting over concerns about potential tree removal as a result of safety concerns identified by federal and state regulating authorities.
The city had declined to issue the plan in advance of the meeting, giving rise to a spate of incredible rumors including assertions that all the trees on the airport property would be removed; a variation that “only” 800 trees would be cut; claims that land would be clear cut all the way to First Avenue; and all the mature trees would be removed from the City Golf Course. Happily, none of these rumors proved to be true.
The city’s airport consultant, Andrew Halesko of Passero Associates, and Early McCall, a certified arborist, walked the commission and the audience through a 35-minute presentation that highlighted the current problems with the tallest trees. Their presentation also presented solutions and identified ways to pay for the work. Both the presentation and the arborist’s report on the trees will be available on the city’s website within the week.
Mr. Halesko began the presentation by stating that “every effort will be made to save as many trees as we can.” However, it became clear that if the airport is to maintain current operations safely the city must make sure that the airport complies with Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) regulations and advisories and that it meets licensing and inspection requirements of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). Halesko stressed that there would be no trees impacted on private property.
Mr. McCall stated that in conducting his tree survey he identified 460 trees that currently penetrate designated airspace. Of those, 71% are pine trees, 26% oak and 3% other. Most of the hardwood trees can be trimmed back to an acceptable height. But the best course of action with the pines is probably removal. He stated that removal of more than 30% of a tree’s crown could kill the tree. With respect to the three runways, he found the following:
• Runway 13-31: the obstructing trees are mostly oaks and can be trimmed back;
• Runway 9-27: the obstructing trees are mostly pine, and should be removed. The City Golf Course appears to concur and would like to re-landscape in that area.
• Runway 4-22: 84% of the tallest trees are pine, and 10% are oak. Two-thirds of the oaks can be trimmed, but 6 need to be removed. The pines are 40-45 years old and at the end of their growing cycle. McCall cited concerns over a potential fire hazard for the Simmons Cove subdivision, as well as a potential for some of these pines to fall on houses. He recommended that these pines be removed.
Halesko reminded commissioners that no general funding at any level goes into the airport, which is completely funded by user fees that funnel back to the airport in the form of grants from the FAA or FDOT or enterprise funding at the local level. The cost of tree removal and re-forestation/landscaping will be covered by these funds.
Following the presentation, commissioners asked questions. Commissioner Tim Poynter asked Halesko about his use of the term “recommendations.” Did this mean that the report was discretionary? Halesko said no, that the city must take these steps to keep the airport operating at its current level as laid out in the 1999 Airport Layout Plan. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch asked if the city could phase in the tree removal in connection with runway 4-22. While some phasing in parts of the plan seemed feasible, there was some question as to whether that would be a good plan in this particular area due to the age and condition of the trees. Mayor Arlene Filkoff asked, “If we had practiced regular maintenance, could we have avoided a problem of this magnitude?” Halesko responded in the affirmative, citing other small Florida airports that are in the same position. She asked Halesko what would happen if the city chose to do nothing. He responded that such a decision would adversely impact on the airport’s license to operate and the use of all the runways.
The Mayor opened the discussion to the audience and eight people spoke, some more than once. There were suggestions made to close or modify some runways. Another called attention to the importance of tree stands as wind breaks. The city also confirmed that local mills would be willing to purchase felled pine trees.
There was also a concern expressed that the airport’s management plan was outdated and needed to be updated to resolve potential conflicts with the airport layout plan. Concern was also expressed that the timing of tree removal take into consideration the need to protect wildlife at early stages in the breeding/life cycle.
Commissioners returned to the idea of phased implementation, asking if the removal, trimming and replanting could be done area by area over time. Halesko suggested that the city make that part of their plan, but keep in mind that FDOT does not keep grants open for more than 2 years, and we are relying on an FDOT grant for this project. At least two audience members expressed impatience with delay, citing concerns over safety.
Commissioner Poynter asked that the city “paint the whole picture” so that citizens can see both the trim/tree removal portion along with the replanting portion. Trees will be replanted, but they will be of varieties that will not exceed the height limitations for the airport. City Manager Joe Gerrity agreed, stating that the city will have such a plan before arranging a field trip to the areas in question.
There appeared to be consensus among commissioners that henceforth regular tree maintenance will prevent such a situation from arising again. Commissioners again reaffirmed their position confirmed in a letter to the FAA that there is no desire or plan to open additional runways to instrument approaches.
Commissioners Poynter, Bunch and Mayor Filkoff engaged in thoughtful discussion with the presenters and citizens. Commissioner Charlie Corbett did not speak. Commissioner Sarah Pelican apologized for having to leave midway into the meeting due to another meeting in Jacksonville. The city confirmed that there will be additional meetings open to the public on this topic.
June 19, 2012 1:30 p.m.