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Shirley residents fight for trees near airport

Ray Keenan, president of Manor Park Civic Association

Ray Keenan, president of Manor Park Civic Association in Shirley, is opposed to a possible plan to cut down some trees by the Brookhaven Calabro Airport. (July 1, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Town officials are conducting an environmental review of a proposal to remove or trim acres of trees around Brookhaven Calabro Airport, a deforestation project some neighbors say is not needed.

"It's not a necessary tree removal," said Ray Keenan of the Manor Park Civic Association, who lives near the 3-acre area the Federal Aviation Administration has recommended for tree removal. Another 4 acres is recommended for topping, or pruning, of trees, according to town Councilman Dan Panico's office, though Keenan believes up to 7 acres may be topped.

"It's unprecedented that they will be removing up to people's houses," said Keenan, who won lawsuits in 2010 and 2011 challenging Brookhaven on the tree removal because the town did not do a mandatory environmental review. "None of this is required."

Because of the legal challenges, town officials announced recently that the planning department is conducting an environmental impact review of the FAA project.

Panico said the tree-trimming project has been scaled back from 19 acres of clearing and topping; but the FAA recommended the project as necessary for safety.

"The FAA regularly does flyovers at airports, and Calabro has an instrument-landing system," he said. "When planes come in for approach for landing, the system guides them to land safely. What interferes with that signal are obstructions between the transponder and the plane, and the trees have grown over the years."

Panico said he hopes the community accepts his proposed compromise, to replant 750 trees at the site, "and if they're kept pruned and trimmed, they won't be totally removed. Safety is the number one concern," he said. "Trimming the trees actually makes the airport safer. I think it's important that everyone understands that we don't support the wholesale removal of the trees."

But Keenan said the community's opposition to the tree trimming and clearing is "not only the visual element; but the trees protect the residents from aircraft."

He pointed to the August fatal crash of a small plane near the airport that killed the pilot and a passenger. "Last summer, the trees prevented the plane from hitting the houses," Keenan said.

Airport neighbors said the trees also block powerful winds, which can whip across the tarp. Winds out of the northeast sweep across hundreds of open acres, and "these are the last few trees here," Keenan said.

In a statement, FAA officials said that because Calabro receives federal funds, it must meet federal safety standards. "These obligations require them to maintain and operate their facilities safely and efficiently and in accordance with specified conditions," agency officials said.

The airport was awarded grants for obstruction removal in 2007 for $540,000 and in 2010 for $300,000, though the projects were put on hold after Keenan sued to halt the tree clearing.

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