2018-03-01 / Front Page

Taking property

Eminent domain procedures could begin near airport
By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to comply with all safety standards to continue receiving funding. The tree tops highlighted above near runway 24 of the Biddeford Municipal Airport are slated for removal. The city solicitor and consultants from Gale Associates are in the midst of negotiations with neighbors of the airport, but have yet to come finalize an agreement. (Courtesy image) The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to comply with all safety standards to continue receiving funding. The tree tops highlighted above near runway 24 of the Biddeford Municipal Airport are slated for removal. The city solicitor and consultants from Gale Associates are in the midst of negotiations with neighbors of the airport, but have yet to come finalize an agreement. (Courtesy image) BIDDEFORD – The city could remove trees surrounding the airport without landowners’ permission if the two parties cannot reach an agreement.

Airport Manager Kris Reynolds said the airport commission voted unanimously Thursday, Feb. 15 to recommend eminent domain procedures with landowners who have refused to sign easements. Eminent domain is the right of governments to seize private property for public use. However, the airport would still be obligated to provide compensation for the cost of trees removed.

The airport commission approved a $223,850 contract with Gale Associates, Inc. in March 2017 to clear trees that surround runway 24. Federal Aviation Administration guidelines require the airport to remove trees above a certain height to help pilots during takeoff and landing. Runway 6, the southwest runway, has already been cleared. Keith Jacques, city solicitor and Matt Caron of Gale Associates are responsible for negotiating avigation easements with landowners adjacent to runway 24, the airport’s only other runway. The easements provide landowners with compensation for the cost of trees on their property and outline which trees need to be cut. Caron deferred to Jacques regarding details of the easement, such as how many landowners the city was in negotiations with and the cost of compensation. Jacques did not return a request for comment.

“We’ve gone through due process up to this point,” Reynolds said. “There are some landowners that we have yet to come to an agreement upon. We will have to go to city council to talk about the next step in the process with being able to acquire those air rights in order to clear the approach path and make it free of obstructions.”

Reynolds said he was not involved with the negotiation process and did now know when the issue could appear before council. He said Jacques and Caron will attempt negotiations with landowners another time before using eminent domain.

Ray Tardif lives on Granite Street near runway 24 and has an easement on his property that dates back to the 1980s. He said he received $1, along with about 25 cords of wood from cleared trees, for the easement on his property back then. He attended the commission’s February meeting and said he was surprised to hear the city could take the property by eminent domain. Tardif declined to say which neighbors were still in negotiations with the city over avigation easements.

Tardif said Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport has solar panels on its land and would like to see Biddeford utilize its space in a similar fashion. He said a report was ordered by the council in February 2015 to research alternative land uses at the airport but he hasn’t heard anything about it since. City Clerk Carmen Morris said a contract was going to be awarded but the order failed.

Tardif said he’ll continue going to commission meetings to further the conversation of the airport but feels the city supports the airport and doesn’t want to listen to him.

“I really think most councilors would just as soon not know anything about it,” he said. “I let it go on its way and that’s the way it’s been for quite a while.”

Ward 3 Councilor Stephen St. Cyr, whose ward encompasses the airport, said council has not discussed eminent domain while he’s served but he would not support it.

“My understanding is that the city is making an offer to pay for the trimming or tree removal,” St. Cyr said. “I don’t know the particulars but my hope would be that the city and residents could work out something that’s amenable to both parties. There is the issue of safety both for residents and pilots. That’s the driving force behind the trimming and removal in the first place. We don’t want to put anybody at risk. I hope the city does not have to take (property) by eminent domain. It doesn’t seem like that’s ever really a good option.”

In a letter to the editor, Tardif wrote that the commission’s recommendation to take property by eminent domain represented an overreach by the FAA and has not heard pilots express issues with trees along runway 24.

Reynolds, however, said most pilots at the airport agree with the FAA. Cody Provencher, 18, received his pilot’s license from York County Coastal Aviation at the Biddeford airport last November. He trained under Navy veteran and Air National Guard member Jeff Surran and completed 62 flights hours to acquire his license. He said regardless of FAA guidelines, the tree clearing will make the airport safer for pilots.

“They are a visual obstruction to most pilots including myself,” he wrote in an email to The Courier. “It’s kind of tricky coming in on runway 24 at times because we only have 3,000 feet of runway, which is on the lower side compared to many other airports. We can get very close sometimes and it feels as if we are about to brush the tops of the trees on final approach.”

Regardless of whether or not the city can reach an agreement with residents, Reynolds said work won’t begin at the airport anytime soon.

“We’re probably a couple of years away before trees are removed,” Reynolds said. “We’ll know more of the timeframe once we get into the planning and permitting process and actually be able to look at the time of year we’ll be doing the tree removal and what we have to do for the whole scope of work. It’s all part of the next planning and design phase.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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