Backus: Attorney advises on city authority over airport trees

City zoning ordinances may give power to remove trees that pose hazard to airport.


Attorney Dan Hawley, of Gammello-Pearson, gave the Backus City Council advice Monday, April 5, on seeking the removal of trees from a private property adjacent to the municipal airport.

For nearly half a year the city has been trying to arrange for the removal of up to 13 trees from a property in the approach zone of the municipal airport. The height of those trees was identified as being problematic by the Minnesota Department of Transportation aviation division.

According to aviation guidelines, those trees are encroaching on the airport's approach and pose a hazard. Under a previously drafted plan, the trees would be removed and replaced at no cost. The property owners, however, do not want to remove the trees and have demanded financial compensation if the plan for removal moves forward.

Hawley said there are three routes the city could consider for having the trees removed. Though one option includes requesting the Cass County attorney seek criminal charges with a possible $1,000 fine and jail time, Hawley instead recommended an abatement based on one of two city ordinances that would apply to the property.

Hawley said chapter 5 of the city code, which regulates nuisances, could apply in this case and could require that the homeowner reimburse costs of removing trees; however, he seemed to favor using chapter 11, which directly relates to the airport and safety.


The first step the city must take is to have the zoning administrator draft an order requiring the trees to be abated according to city zoning ordinances. If there is no appeal or request for a variance, then the city may move forward.

If the resident requests a variance or appeals the decision, then the city must draft an order for hearing and explain the property owners' rights relating to the hearings.

If the results of the hearing are appealed, then the discussion would go to the district court. If the findings go in the city's favor, the tree removal would be court ordered. Interference with the removal at that point could be an obstruction of the legal process.

"At that point you could probably have the Cass County Sheriff's Office help you do that," Hawley said. "Hopefully none of that's necessary."

The first step is to send out notice of violations. The council approved starting the legal process immediately.

In other business Monday, the council:

  • Approved increasing fire relief payments to $3,000 for one year, with review to follow in 2022.
  • Approved a $2,050 quote to install an underground electrical connection to the fire hall. The current connection is overhead and keeps getting damaged.
  • Scheduled a conditional use permit to consider Mayor Kurt Sawyer's request to install three temporary camper sites on his property for use for the duration of the Line 3 pipeline construction.
  • Committed to becoming a "Respect Minnesota" city, a program setting standards for dialogue surrounding the Line 3 pipeline construction.
  • Approved purchase of swan decoys to install at Rocky Dock with the hopes that the territorial nature of swans might scare away the geese that defecate all over the grass there.
  • Agreed to send a letter to a homeowner with an unoccupied building to inform them that their building is attracting feral cats.
  • Approved a partial street closure for Willards to host a Welcome Home Snowbirds celebration.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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