South St. Paul Homes In Airport Buffer Zones To Be Removed--Some Day

April 26--It was obvious to Tim and Linda Stromgren when they bought their South St. Paul house that planes would fly overhead.

The two-story house that they purchased in 2007 sits across the street from the end of the runway at Richard E. Fleming Field, a city-owned and operated airport that averages 63,700 flights annually.

What they say they didn't know at the time is their house is one of two in a so-called "runway protection zone," which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as a trapezoidal area off either end of a runway and meant to safeguard people and property in case a plane lands or crashes there.

Now, the city says the FAA wants the houses removed.

"We're apparently in some sort of safety zone," Linda Stromgren said.

City officials told the Stromgrens as much in 2012, while also explaining that they planned to buy the house.

What they still don't know, though, is when.

"It's like we're living in limbo," Stromgren said. "And it's a horrible feeling."

The two South Street houses are just part of what must be removed in order for the city to comply with federal and state requirements concerning land-use compatibility and airspace obstructions, airport manager Glenn Burke said.

An environmental assessment of the area around the airport also identified 37 trees in the city and neighboring Inver Grove Heights that are considered to be in "clear zones," Burke said. South St. Paul must pay to remove the trees, or they can be trimmed at the homeowner's expense.

An additional 163 trees have been identified as being close to becoming an obstruction.

The north runway protection zone also encroaches into the front yards of two other houses along South Street, which means the city must buy navigation easements from the property owners.

The four houses were built before the FAA had established the runway protection zones, Burke said.

And until three years ago, the FAA had given the city leeway because Fleming Field is in a built-up urban area and the homes have been there for more than 50 years, he said. The agency then directed the city to do the environmental assessment and paid for it.

Over the past four years, the city has cut down about 50 trees in yards around the airport in South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights -- and reimbursed homeowners for doing so.

"We've made progress over the years," Burke said, "but probably not enough to satisfy the FAA, who is saying we've got some real issues here, as far as they're concerned."

On the line for South St. Paul is future grant money from the FAA, he said.

"The last thing I want to do is make my neighbors mad," Burke said. "But (the FAA) sort of put down the gauntlet and said we're not going to give you any more money unless you address these issues. So that got our attention."

The city is eligible for grants from the agency that would go toward paying for 90 percent of the acquisition cost and other work, an FAA spokeswoman said. South St. Paul officials plan to pay the remaining cost.

Also targeted for removal are 32 parking spaces at McMorrow Field -- a neighborhood park adjacent to the airport and across the street from the Stromgrens.

This spring, the city removed a 3-acre community garden from the north runway protection zone. The garden had been there since the 1990s.

In October, the city sent letters to residents who will be affected by the work and to other residents who live in blocks that are contiguous to the airport.

The city has scheduled a meeting next month to hear residents' concerns, Burke said. It will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 13 at the airport terminal building.

Burke said the city will appraise the Stromgrens' house and their neighbor's house -- a duplex owned by Bernadine Bosworth -- with the goal of giving them fair-market value for them. The city will also give them relocation costs.

The Stromgrens said they would rather stay in their home, for which they paid $257,000, but they realize their options are limited.

"It's not that we want to fight this thing tooth and nail," Linda Stromgren said. "We want to be treated fairly and we want to be kept up to date with everything that is happening. We have no idea of when. Two Christmases ago we didn't know if it was our last Christmas here."

Bosworth, who is retired and has lived in the duplex since 1968, said she is open to moving. "I'm at an age where I'm ready to leave," she said.

Burke said there is no FAA deadline for buying the houses or a target date for the city to get into compliance.

"We will buy them when the FAA says they have the money for us and say to jump," said Burke, adding that could come as early as October, which is the start of the agency's next budget cycle.

The trees in the runway protection zones or approach areas get first priority, he said.

Mike Kubiszewski said he sees no reason why the airport needs to cut down six mature trees in the back yard of his home in Inver Grove Heights.

"I've never seen or heard of navigation issues with these trees, and I've talked with pilots," Kubiszewski said. He said planes land at least 300 feet west from his property when on approach.

But the trees -- and others on three nearby properties -- are on land easements the airport secured in 1980s, Burke said.

"The city hasn't maintained these trees and now they want to take them down and remove all my shade and leave my yard bare," said Kubiszewski, who bought his house in 2001. "I don't agree with it."

Nick Ferraro can be reached at 651-228-2173. Follow him at twitter.com/NFerraroPiPress.

Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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