The Biddeford City Council is using eminent domain to cut or trim trees that are getting in the way of flight paths at the municipal airport.

Federal, state and city officials said for years that the tree were a safety risk, but four property owners did not agree to voluntarily give the city avigation easements, prompting the city to take them by eminent domain. Avigation easements provide the legal right to clear airspace over private properties.

“We’re not taking the property, we’re taking the rights to cut trees,” Rick Laverriere, chairman of the Airport Commission, said at the City Council meeting.

Airport manager Christopher Reynolds said trimming the trees will not mean pilots will fly lower or “buzz” houses, but it will allow them to approach the runway at a safer angle and avoid clipping tall trees.

“The last thing I would like to see is an incident occur because we decide not to remove an obstruction that all parties know is existing,” he said.

Two pilots spoke about the difficulty of flying into the airport with overgrown trees in the way and urged councilors to support the avigation easements.

“Those trees loom large when you’re coming on the approach to that runway,” said Joel Keller, a Biddeford pilot who owns a hangar at the airport.

The council was nevertheless divided about the move on Tuesday.

After a short public comment period, the council voted 4-4 on the order to take the air rights by eminent domain. Mayor Alan Casavant broke the tie with a vote in favor. Councilors Michael Swanton, Marc Lessard, Robert Quattrone and Stephen St. Cyr voted in opposition. Councilor Victoria Foley was absent.

Councilors in favor said they are focused on the safety of both the pilots and neighbors, but others questioned taking property in that way.

“I’m not taking land from a 90-year-old man,” Swanton said. “It would kill him.”

The 90-year-old Swanton referenced is Robert Dee Jr., who has lived on Granite Street Extension since 1966 and is unhappy with the decision to place an easement over his property. He and his attorney spoke about his opposition and questioned the property appraisal done as part of the easement process.

“This is unacceptable. You either acquire the whole property or walk away,” Dee said. “I will be 90 years old in a few days and I don’t want to waste my life fighting with the city of Biddeford. I pay my taxes and want to be left alone.”

City attorney Keith Jacques said property owners are able to challenge the easement through a superior court process that could include reviewing appraisals to ensure they were properly compensated.

The City Council voted in early 2015 to accept more than $866,000 from the Federal Aviation Administration and $48,000 from the Maine Department of Public Transportation to trim or remove trees at the airport, ending a six-year stalemate over the fate of the city-owned property. The municipal airport has been a source of contention within the city for years, at times pitting neighbors against pilots and city officials who support the facility. In 2008, voters rejected a proposal to close it.

In the years since then, the Federal Aviation Administration has put the city on notice that it must address safety issues.

The city approved a safety project to remove trees that present a hazard to aircraft and obstruct the runway approach surface to Runway 24. The city has already obtained easements to trim trees on six nearby properties and homeowners received compensation ranging from $7,500 to $25,000. But the owners of four properties – John Dee, Cory Grattelo, Robert Dee Jr. and Ryan and Erin Huntington – did not reach agreements on the easement either because of their own opposition or resistance from their mortgage company.

The FAA will reimburse the city for the cost of compensation to the property owners.

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