A family living next to the Backus Municipal Airport is seeking ways to keep control over their property after a new Federal Aviation Administration regulation put their trees on the chopping block.
Tylor Risk and April Buddy, who live on the southwest-most corner of the airport approach, were informed earlier in the summer that 13 trees on their property would need to be removed for obstructing the approach to the airport runway, with some trees specifically relating to the airport's Precision Approach Path Indicator lights, which were installed in 2018.
Risk and Buddy were immediately frustrated. The trees in question provide the property with privacy year-round from Highways 371 and 87, as well as from the airport and Airport Road.
"We have a lot of privacy," Buddy said. "Our closest neighbor is a quarter mile away at least and we're secluded."
"It's a convenient area that's closed in and decently protected," Risk said.
"Right now we have our protection for our kids and our house," Buddy said. "If it weren't for the trees, you could see right into my bathroom."
In addition, they didn't feel like they were given much control over the situation, even though the trees are their property.
"I think for me, the biggest thing is that it's my property," Risk said. "It's something I value and what they think is fair and what I think is fair for compensation just doesn't quite meet up together."
Furthermore, the trees, and the privacy they provide, were a consideration when first purchasing the property. They told the Backus City Council during a July 6 meeting and again at the Sept. 14 meeting that they would not have purchased the property if they knew they wouldn't be able to keep the trees.
"The trees were a big deal to us," Risk said. "We moved here from southern Minnesota. It's a lot of farmland and open area so we've always wanted trees and just really enjoy them."
Frustrating to the council as well as to Risk and Buddy is the fact that five trees are only obstructions to the PAPI light system, and when the system was originally planned, the regulations that identify those trees as obstructions didn't exist. Therefore, neither the city nor the family had any way of knowing that the PAPI system would require tree removal when it was constructed.
Buddy, Risk and council member Karl Flier all wondered why they weren't informed of these trees before construction of the PAPI light system before Short Elliott Hendrickson Aviation Planner Jacqueleine Zirbes informed the council of the new guidelines during the July council meeting. However, the remaining eight trees are considered obstructions to the airport approach as a whole.
"I never anticipated any problems living here with the airport," Risk said. "This property and the airport are both old. They've always coexisted and it hasn't been an issue. In my mind, there shouldn't be an issue now."
In July, the council discussed three possible solutions. The first option was to remove the trees and the city would use a 90% grant to pay for replacement of those trees with others that will not grow tall enough to become obstructions. There was some hope the same grant could instead pay for a fence.
"MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) basically said the fence would not be eligible for state funding," Zirbes said. "So for that it would have to be city funded."
The family worries the trees may not be thick enough for years to provide the level of privacy the family has now.
Option two was to move the PAPI light system to the other side of the runway, though Airport Manager JB Johnson said this would require electrical wires below the ground to be spliced, which likely would cause problems later.
Option three was not popular with anyone, as it included just turning off the PAPI light system completely.
Regardless, solutions two and three would only save five trees from being cut down.
Risk and Buddy are having a difficult time reaching anyone to discuss what they hope would be a better compromise. They say they were able to reach Zirbes by phone once before the July meeting, then again they were able to speak to her at that meeting. But since then they have not been able to reach anyone outside of the city council to discuss possible compromises or options.
The council has had difficulty arranging direct communications with the FAA or MnDOT for this and other issues. Most communications have been through Zirbes or Johnson.
The council is scheduled to make a decision on the obstructions in October to finalize plans for airport project grant applications that could include tree removal and replacement.
"When they came to mark our trees that they were going to take down, those guys ended up giving us their supervisor's number and that was Jackie (Zirbes)," Buddy said. "We tried to get a hold of her and that took a long time. After that we pretty much only heard from her at the city council meeting we went to (in July), and then we keep getting directed to the city council meetings and we get nowhere."
Zirbes shared quotes from a tree company for possible replacement trees. The 13 recommended replacements included pinus cembra "Silver sheen," pinus mugo "La Cabana," picea abides "Paul's Select" and abies balsamea "Tyler Blue" trees with prices ranging from $475-$720 a tree. The quote, which was provided to give an idea of the costs involved, totaled $7,639.73.
These are all evergreen trees with burlap-wrapped roots, so they would not be growing from saplings; however, the quotes do not indicate exactly how big they are or how much cover they may provide. The varieties were selected, in part, with consideration for their maximum height, with the goal of preventing obstructions in the future.
"They are going to be low growth or slow growth trees so they won't grow as tall as the trees that are on the property," Zirbes said.
Buddy and Risk have lived in their home for approximately five years, and say they have coexisted comfortably with the airport until this incident. They are not only concerned about losing the trees that provide them with privacy, but also with possible noise, light pollution, dust and loss of property value.
So far the only obstructions that have been removed were trees on the airport property, and they quickly noticed that without those trees they can see everything going on at the airport property from their backyard, including some less than pleasant details.
"We can literally see inside the (medical) helicopters with people moving around," Buddy said. "It was kind of scary and it was sad that we could see that. Without our trees, we'll be able to see that stuff from my kitchen window."
Risk believes there are compromises they would likely welcome.
"I'd come to a compromise if there was monetary compensation along with shrubbery," Risk said. "I feel like the shrubbery just doesn't compensate me to the level I think is fair. I love the trees in my yard and I don't feel like that should be taken from me without it being fair. I worked for the last five years to pay for the property and work to make it mine. I should have a say what happens with it."
If such a compromise would be reached, Risk said he would still likely try to find some way to build a fence using the monetary compensation. MnDOT has not appeared to be open to such compensation, however, there may be some compromise available. Zirbes said such a compromise would have to be based on pilot safety. MnDOT and the FAA are not likely to make exceptions to these rules because the rules are about safe operation of aircraft.
Being owners of an airport, she said, the city has to keep that in mind.
Among the trees that would be removed is one large white pine with a 128.5-inch circumference. According to University of Minnesota Extension Service calculations, the diameter of this tree (40.9 inches) multiplied by the species' growth factor (5) equals its approximate age, in this case approximately 204 years old.
Eight trees the FAA identified are considered obstructions based on the airport's Part 77 Approach Surfaces regulations and not related to the PAPI light system.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.