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Trees near Finleyville Airport spur dispute

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 12:13 a.m.
The trees at the right are causing a controversy at the Finleyville Airport Tuesday February 12, 2013 because they are higher than state safety standards and a township ordinance allow, creating a possible hazard for landings, airport and township officials say. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A patch of trees on private property abutting the Finleyville Airport grew higher than state safety standards and a township ordinance allow, causing a possible hazard for landings, airport and township officials say.

“If we fail to enforce our ordinance and somebody is killed or injured, we are extremely liable,” township Supervisor Larry Spahr said.

The trees — cherry, elm, locust and sumac ranging in height from 29 to 69 feet — are owned by Mary Parish, who contends in response to a lawsuit the township filed in Washington County Court that she should not have to remove them.

Parish could not be reached but argues in court documents that the township cannot establish how tall the trees were in 2008, when the ordinance passed, and therefore cannot prove growth since then. Parish's attorney, John Arminas, could not be reached for comment.

The ordinance mirrors state standards, which say that for every 20 feet an aircraft travels, it must be able to ascend or descend by one foot. The trees are too tall to allow that for landings and must be removed, said Jim Kirk, manager of the airport, and Gerald Cook, attorney for the 39-member board that runs the private airport.

“The problem is that the trees are in the approach zone,” Cook said. “Pilots can't get the angle they're supposed to have to come in. They come in at a steeper angle than recommended.”

Cook said attorneys are trying to reach a resolution. He said someone is interested in buying the Parish property but would not provide details.

“We just want this resolved,” Kirk said.

Over the years, the airport offered to buy the Parish property or pay to remove the trees, he said. The township has spent more than $50,000 on its legal battles with Parish, who is the mother of township supervisor Steve Parish. He could not be reached.

Kirk said summer is the busiest time at the airport, with about 50 takeoffs or landings a day. In winter, the number drops to about four a day. The airport also is a fueling station, and the height of the trees has lessened traffic and hurt sales, Kirk said.

A crash occurred there three years ago, because of the trees, Cook said. No one was injured.

PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation, which inspects the airport annually, has issued written warnings to the airport about the trees for “at least the last few years,” a spokeswoman said.

Erin Waters-Trasatt said the airport has tried to fix the problem. “They are working with the township as necessary,” she said.

The airport's next inspection is scheduled in March. Cook said he hopes the situation will be resolved by then.

Leo Miltenberger, 86, of Union has flown out of the Finleyville Airport since 1957. He considers the trees a hazard.

“They started as just little bushes and through the years have continued to grow. They shortened the runway,” he said.

Miltenberger said he worries the township could be liable if an accident happens, especially considering the money the board has spent on lawsuits.

“It hurts to see that being wasted,” he said. “The longer it draws out, the more it will cost. “

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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