Ponoka town council is taking fire for cutting down a long row of spruce trees at the east side of the Labrie Field airport, owned by the town and operated by the Ponoka Airport Commission.
Removing the approximately 1.5-km row of spruce trees that stood between the runway and Hwy 2A was a key step in setting a new course for the airport, which Transport Canada had downgraded to aerodrome status because it did not meet safety regulations, says chief administrative officer Brad Watson.
The move, approved by a motion passed during council’s Jan. 25 meeting, drew the ire of a group of citizens from town.
About 35 people crowded into chambers for the Feb. 22 meeting to express their dismay at seeing the trees cut down and turned into mulch that same morning.
Local lawyer Rick Wyrozub, who was part of the crowd, said he doesn’t buy the reasons given and can’t understand why the town got into such a rush to remove the trees and sink money into the airport when there are other projects that he believes hold a higher priority.
With the contentious row of spruce trees cut down the morning of council’s Tuesday meeting, the “horse has left the barn,” Wyrozub said on Wednesday.
Saying the town has not done its homework on the issue, Wyrozub said he has applied to fill the vacant position on the airport commission where he believes he can have more impact on future decisions.
Town resident Catherine Cumberland said she was deeply disturbed to learn via Facebook on Tuesday morning that the trees had been mowed down.
“They were magnificent trees,” said Cumberland.
“Somebody needs to be held accountable,” she said.
Under the watchful eyes of a crowded gallery, town council on Tuesday ordered that suitable shrubbery be planted to replace the trees, said Watson.
Some smaller trees had been planted among the spruce trees earlier on, but they will be removed and replanted along the town’s hiking trails.
“We want to clean it out,” he said.
Council also directed staff to investigate the costs and other implications of lengthening the runway from 914 to 1,219 metres and installing an satellite-based navigation system known as a Wide Area Augmentation System.
The improvements, which could not be made while the spruce trees were still standing, would enable the airport to accommodate a broader variety of planes, including those that fly patients in for admission to the brain injury unit at the Centennial Centre, said Watson.
Medevac flights are among the most frequent visiting aircraft, bringing patients from all over Alberta and neighbouring provinces for treatment, he said.
The current town council and its predecessors have debated removal of the trees for the past 12 years without taking any action, said Watson. A motion by councillor Beva Hamilton to have them removed immediately was passed unanimously after a heated debate during council’s Jan. 25 meeting.
Minutes provided on the town’s website cite five reasons behind the “immediate” removal of the trees, including safety, liability, federal regulations, requirements of a Ponoka County bylaw and the desire to advance instrument flight capabilities for pilots using the airport.