2006-10-07 / Top News

Restrictions Near Airport Condemn 3 Residential Lots

By Karen Gould

Subdivisions below the bluff at the end of Mackinac Island Airport are seen at left, extending to M-185, which encircles the Island. The arrow points to three non-buildable Forest Brook lots, numbers six, seven, and eight, that lie within the airport's runway protection zone. Aknown avigation easement also is outlined on the map, which is on file at the Mackinac County Court House, but this easement did not restrict buildings, as newer regulations do. The end of the airport's runway is shown on the right. Subdivisions below the bluff at the end of Mackinac Island Airport are seen at left, extending to M-185, which encircles the Island. The arrow points to three non-buildable Forest Brook lots, numbers six, seven, and eight, that lie within the airport's runway protection zone. Aknown avigation easement also is outlined on the map, which is on file at the Mackinac County Court House, but this easement did not restrict buildings, as newer regulations do. The end of the airport's runway is shown on the right. Three residential lots at the end of the Mackinac Island Airport have been condemned as state and city administrators evaluate federal aviation safety regulations there. In the meantime, Mackinac Island residents continue to speculate that homes may need to be torn down and that ongoing tree and brush removal at the airport is being done to accommodate larger and more aircraft. While

Mackinac Island State Park authorities deny these accusations, they do say that aviation regulations are affecting private land development in the western approach to the airport runway. The state park operates the airport on Mackinac Island.

Anxiety is intensified because regulations in a park file were unheeded for four years while private property at the end of the runway was sold and developed.

The matter has been brewing much of the summer and led to a heated discussion at a meeting of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission Friday, September 22, but the determination that three lots below the bluff at the end of the runway cannot be developed came at a meeting of city and state officials on October 2, attended by Park Director Phil Porter and his director of marketing, Greg Hokans, Mackinac Island City Attorney Tom Evashevski and zoning administrator Dennis Dombroski, and two representatives from the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, Rick Hammond and Linn Smith. Using Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, a commissioned survey, and three-dimensional mapping, they determined that Forest Bluff subdivision lots six, seven, and eight are not buildable and their respective owners, Gary Childs of South Lyon, Tom Dougherty of Erlanger, Kentucky, and Dale Ivey of Swartz Creek, were notified the next day.

The lots lie in the runway protection zone, said Mr. Porter, and, by law, no residential buildings can be built there.

The park has learned that it can apply for grants to purchase these properties and the Bureau of Aeronautics now is working to identify sources of funding. The properties will be appraised and then the Bureau of Aeronautics will negotiate land acquisitions for the property, which ultimately will be turned over to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission.

"We are moving as quickly and as expeditiously as possible," said Mr. Porter, although he had no precise timeline on the process.

He said the park is waiting to receive additional information about other properties that may be impacted by the height and building regulations in the runway protection zone.

"It appears at this time that these are the only unbuildable lots in this area," said Mr. Porter. "There may be restrictions on construction and tree growth on lots on the west end of the airport."

No homes have been built on the land in question.

During a tense, three-hour Mackinac Island State Park Commission meeting attended by more than 20 people Friday, September 22, at Fort Mackinac, residents from the Sunset Forest Association, which includes Woodbluff and Stonecliffe Manor housing developments, sought answers to growing speculation that some Island homes will have to be torn down.

"There are lots of rumors out there," said Mr. Porter then. "Most of them are not true about what's happening at the airport. There is no plan to expand the airport. There is no plan to bring in larger planes. There's no plan to increase the number of planes that do come in. There are no plans to tear down any buildings out there, at all," he said. "All of this has to do with public safety."

To an audience that spilled out into the hallway, Mr. Porter said that sorting out the land restrictions in the airport approach zone now is his number one job priority.

"The fact is, the property has always been restricted," he told the property owners.

Mr. Porter said the Park Commission, as the airport manager working with the Bureau of Aeronautics, along with Island land developers, are to blame for a communication breakdown that has left some Island property owners unaware of long-standing building height restrictions on lots near the airport's west landing approach area.

"The law has always been there," he told the group; "it is not a new law."

Woodbluff property owner and pilot Dr. Robert Spitzer said he has been researching the subject and agreed, "In fact, the current status is no different than it has been for some 20 or 30 years."

Four years ago, a packet of information from the Bureau of Aeronautics was sent to the state park which contained complex drawings about building and tree height restrictions at the airport. That, and a letter advising that the information be shared with the City of Mackinac Island and its planning agencies, was simply filed away by park administrators, said Mr. Porter, who discovered the file three days before the September 22 meeting. He could find no evidence that a copy had been given to the city and said the park received only that mailing, with no follow-up, and that the annual airport inspections made no mention of the potential problems with the housing development in the area.

The height restrictions imposed by the FAA would normally be incorporated into the city's zoning ordinance, but they were not. The city is now looking into language revisions for its zoning ordinance that will reflect the restrictions, Mr. Dombroski told the Town Crier October 5.

The situation unfolded last year when the park received a safety improvement grant of $20,000 from the Bureau of Aeronautics to cut trees on the east and west approaches to the runway. Part of the approach area at the west end is on private property and the park has been communicating with those owners to get their permission to cut trees outside the park's easement.

Despite the miss-filed safety plans, the Park Commission isn't accepting full blame for the confusion.

Park Commissioner Karen Karam questioned Mr. Porter on the developer's responsibility to investigate height restrictions before platting lots, and Mr. Porter replied, "Lots were platted on the flight path to the airport on land that is merely a stone's throw away from the runway. I think the developer should have paid better attention to statutes controlling lands so close to the runway."

Commission Chairman Dennis Cawthorne added, "As a lawyer, I find it astonishing that the developer did not exercise due diligence. He was platting below an airport and one of the first things you would do, it would seem to me, would be to establish the buildability of the lots."

Susan Lundgren, an attorney and developer of Forest Brook, was sympathetic, both to the land owners and to Mr. Porter, who has to deal with the problem.

"Everyone was operating with the knowledge they had," said Ms. Lundgren. "Somehow, this requirement of the FAAwas not made known."

She said that the city's Zoning Board of Appeals approved the development of the site condominium, and the master deed was also approved by the city. An avigation easement that is on the deed and noted on the map filed with the county is not as restrictive as the regulations now state, and does not restrict construction of homes. Such agreements grant the right to fly airplanes over property and can restrict impediments over a specified height.

The master deed to Forest Brook is dated December 2002 and it was filed with the county in January 2003.

The landing approach and the runway protection zones are set by the FAA, explained Mr. Porter. The Bureau of Aeronautics, working with the park, hired engineers and surveyors to gather the data needed to advise individual property owners where they are in relation to the restrictions.

The "bigger question" has to do with whether the lots in the runway protection zone are buildable, he said at the meeting. There are no structures already built in the runway protection zone that would have to be torn down, however, he added.

Area resident Bart Huthwaite Sr. asked for a public meeting on the issue, but Mr. Porter said the first priority is to work with individual landowners who are hearing rumors that their homes have to be torn down, and to reassure them that is not the case.

Property owner and president of Sunset Forest Association, Steve Rilenge, said he has been communicating with Mr. Porter, but the rumors continue to be troublesome for his family. He said the day before, his children had come home from school crying, saying their friends would have to move because their homes were being torn down next week.

He also said he is concerned that property values could fall because of the restrictions imposed by the FAA.

If people have questions about their lots, Mr. Porter told the Town Crier, they should contact the Mackinac Island State Park, which will refer them to an expert at the Bureau of Aeronautics, who will provide specific information on their property.

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