TRAVERSE CITY — For months, confusion has ruled discussions regarding the removal of trees from approximately 110 acres at Cherry Capital Airport. The size of a tree determined if it stayed in some areas. Other places — including roughly 40 acres near Costco — were clearcut.

The cutting earned airport and county officials the ire of some community members, which only grew as people struggled to gain a complete understanding of the situation.

“Everybody (officials) was ducking for a foxhole after they did the clearcutting and they got the wrath of the public after them,” said Ted Iorio, a Traverse City resident. He and his wife, Gretchen Iorio, were among those who immediately began pushing for an explanation upon learning of the cuttings.

They sought answers from the Northwestern Regional Airport Commission, which governs the airport; airport staff and consultants; and Grand Traverse County commissioners — Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties co-own the airport — but the responses seemed only to raise more questions.

One such response was to the question, did the Federal Aviation Administration order the trees to be cut?

“There’s been some confusion about, was there a direct order from the FAA saying, ‘Cut these specific trees down’ and there was not,” said Rob Hentschel, chairperson of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners and member of the NRAC. “I apologize if I added to that confusion as I learned through this process of how that worked.”

Hentschel made the statement during the May 1 county board meeting. He’s one of five new county commissioners that took office in January — he was elected chairperson and subsequently appointed himself to the NRAC.

The initial, high-level answer airport officials had given was, “Yes” — but it was an answer that summarized FAA guidelines and regulations, which list multiple ways to address wildlife and airspace obstruction hazards.

The decision to clearcut was an effort to address safety concerns — too tall trees and too much wildlife that was too close too often, said Doug DeYoung, who has been on the NRAC since 2014 and is the current chairperson.

An average of 10 wildlife-aircraft strikes occur each year at Cherry Capital Airport, according to the FAA’s wildlife strike database — 101 took place between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 31, 2018. The majority of strikes that have taken place at the airport are with birds.

Birds, especially ones that flock, also account for most of the 8,343 animals on average that are witnessed on airport property each year.

“Safety is No. 1,” he said. “One incident can be catastrophic. As a commissioner on the airport, that’s something I think we’re all concerned about.

“We have to look at the right way and time to do things and the best time to address those,” DeYoung continued. “We went through all the information provided and talked to experts. It became very apparent … that it was time to address that area.”

Among the documents guiding the NRAC are the airport’s Wildlife Hazard Assessment and the Wildlife Hazard Management Plan — both are required by the FAA. They were approved December 2014 and October 2015 respectively.

Both documents specifically identify the 40 acres near Costco — they refer to the area as the southeast woodlot and note that deer routinely are spotted there — and recommend thinning or removing the trees. Doing so is listed as a “moderate” priority.

Trees within the woodlot, in addition to supporting potentially hazardous wildlife, also were identified as obstructions breaching navigable airspace as determined by federal aviation rules, according to a legal opinion written by the airport’s attorney, Karrie Zeits.

Zeits’ 18-page legal opinion — plus 332 pages of reference material — lays out the airport’s argument for the tree-cutting’s legality. She listed more than a dozen federal, state and local regulatory documents requiring officials act to mitigate hazards and maintain a safe operation.

It was shared with the public on April 30 after NRAC members voted to waive attorney-client privilege.

“I’m not an attorney, but looking through all these documents, it seems like there were other choices that could have been made — thinning instead of clear-cutting,” said Gretchen Iorio. “A discussion between the community, the airport commission, the county commission could have worked those things out and come to a resolution.”

Thinning wouldn’t have been enough because of the height of the trees around Costco, Klein said. They height had to be lowered and an arborist officials consulted told them that too much would have to be taken off the tree tops — it would have killed them, said Cherry Capital Airport Director Kevin Klein.

But not everyone believes that safety was the driving force behind the cuttings.

TJ Andrews, legal counsel for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said that examining Zeits’ opinion and a slew of other documents reinforced her belief that the 40 acres were cleared for commercial development “under the guise of wildlife hazard mitigation.”

Traverse City Planner Russ Soyring said planning commissioners in 2016 urged airport officials to consider an overall plan for the 64-acre parcel that’s now occupied by Costco in one corner and newly-cut land in the rest. The result was a drawing from Prein & Newhof showing the Costco site, some solar panels to the north and another development to the east.

Soyring said he recalls seeing documents concerning long-standing plans to turn empty land around the airport into an industrial park. The city’s most recent master plan calls for the airport to have a campus plan — similar to what Munson Medical Center and Northwestern Michigan College file with the city.

City zoning previously didn’t allow for uses such as Costco on the airport property, he said. It was in 2016 that planning and city commissioners agreed to zone the land as a Transportation district to allow for a store and gas station, plus other uses, Soyring said.

Andrews said she honed in on a categorical exemption — CATEX — that the FAA approved in order to allow the clearcutting around Costco.

The National Environmental Protection Act was triggered because the FAA was involved in the project, she said. The CATEX was their NEPA-compliant document, Andrews said, adding that she had expected an environmental assessment instead.

“NEPA says any time the federal government does something, they have to take a hard look at the environmental consequences,” Andrews said. “It’s a law that makes you go through the process. It doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong, it just makes you do the hard look.

“To my mind, they bent, twisted and stretched six different ways the requirements to avoid taking a hard look at what they were doing,” Andrews said. “They glossed over things, they mischaracterized aspects of what they were doing and they basically had the FAA rubber-stamp their decision to clear that area and other stuff.”

One thing the CATEX specifically references is a proposed tree ordinance Traverse City commissioners are working on.

Planning commissioners have pushed for better tree protections since 2015, Andrews said.

The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay sought and received a grant with the city’s support, and formed a group to consider a tree policy in May 2017. City leaders passed the first suggestion — requiring trees in parking lots — with little controversy. The group penned its next suggestion, a tree replacement mechanism, by September 2018.

City planning department staff reworked those suggestions afterward. Confusion and frustration ensued as city leaders tried to make sense of the differing suggestions.

Klein said he wasn’t aware of the ordinance until September 2018. The airport since has taken the stance that the cutting would not have been subject to the ordinance.

City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht agreed. The city zoning ordinance doesn’t apply to activities that serve aeronautical purposes, even on airport-owned land set aside for non-aeronautical purposes — both the aeronautics code and city zoning apply, she explained.

There’s a difference between “aeronautical” and “airport” purposes, Trible-Laucht said. Aeronautical purposes as a general concept include anything to do with flying planes, including safety, she said.

Airport purposes are more broad, she wrote in a recent memo to city commissioners. They can include leasing out airport land set aside for non-aeronautical uses, so long as the revenue goes to airport purposes.

The two purposes combine at the Costco site, she wrote. The lease falls under a non-aeronautical, airport use, so that’s why both FAA and city rules apply — a legal concept called coextensive authority.

Cutting trees for safety reasons serves an aeronautical purpose, so a city ordinance wouldn’t prevent cuttings even where there’s co-extensive authority, Trible-Laucht said. Regulations from the FAA give the airport some authority to cut trees off of airport land in flight zones as well, she said.

The CATEX also contains questions about light emissions and visual effects and public involvement. Klein and Robert Nelesen — project engineer from Prein & Newhof — signed the document.

One question asked if concerns about visual/aesthetic impacts had been expressed — the answer was that homeowners are not affected by approach clearing.

Another question asked if there was any public notification or involvement.

“No specific/separate project based notification has been conducted,” Klein and Nelesen wrote. “Obstruction removal has been discussed at NRAC commission meetings, per the attached minutes.”

It doesn’t feel like officials have been forthcoming with information and intentions, said Kimberly Homminga, who lives just east of Costco on George Street. She wasn’t even aware cuttings were taking place until she came home one day and the trees her backyard faced were being removed, she said

“They could have said, ‘Hey, we have to do this. It’s for our patrons’ safety and we’re sorry for the inconvenience,’” Homminga said. “I really do try to understand it — it’s not my property.

“It does make it difficult to go in my backyard,” she said. “It’s irritating and kind of maddening.”

Klein said that trees will be planted along the George Street fenceline. The original plan was 40, but because of the relatively small size of the trees — pines that will grow to about 25 feet tall — it’s been bumped up to 300, he said.

The community is very engaged and has a high level of expectation when it comes to being notified of things that will affect public resources or places, Andrews said. She said she thinks tree clearing is the kind of activity the community cares about a lot.

“Somewhere along the line, there was a decision to turn 60 acres into commercial development,” she said. “That decision impacts the community about how and where we’re growing and those decisions weren’t made in any sort of public forum.”

Klein disagreed, saying the airport reached out to several different agencies — the Record-Eagle and the city and county commissions.

DeYoung said that, with the turnover in Grand Traverse County commissioners, they missed an opportunity to better inform the newly elected officials.

Gretchen Iorio questions why the community wasn’t provided the chance to give input.

“A lot of people who feel the trust has been broken and are upset,” she said. “We really want to reinstill that trust and transparency between the county, airport and community.”

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