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Airport manager counters property owner claims

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The six-year saga surrounding a lawsuit brought by three property owners against the city of New Richmond continued in St. Croix County Court Monday.

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Since 2009, three families who live near the New Richmond Regional Airport have argued that their ability to use and enjoy their property has been compromised since the city-owned facility's main runway expanded in 2007. They claim that airplanes are routinely flying directly over their homes, and at such unsafe altitudes, that they should be paid for their troubles.

But airport officials and consultants claim flight patterns have not changed in more than two decades, and the property owners should not be compensated.

The original lawsuit was decided in 2009, when Judge Howard Cameron determined that the city had not "taken" the properties in question and thus no compensation was required in the matter.

But after an appeal to Wisconsin's District III Court of Appeals, the case was sent back to Cameron for further findings of fact and to determine if a "partial taking" had taken place. An appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed that appeal court's decision.

The first half of the case was heard in March during more than three hours of testimony. At that time, homeowners Robert Brenner, Allan and Susan Seidling, and Steven and Christy Wickenhauser continued to claim that changes in flight patterns since the airport extended its runway by 1,500 feet have resulted in more "flyovers" of their properties and homes.

The second half of the case, presented by the city in its defense, was heard June 3.

As the trial re-opened, Cameron noted that he didn't expect the lengthy legal fight to be over any time soon.

"We know someone is going to appeal it," he said of his pending decision in the case. "I know that."

Despite various objections from the city's attorney, Ben Southwick, and the plaintiff's attorney, Phillip Krass, Cameron made it clear that he was going to allow each side to present its full case so that there might be fewer legal entanglements down the road.

As the defense's case began, Kirk Contrucci, a mapping expert with Ayers Associates, presented a map showing the Federal Aviation Administration landing and takeoff patterns established for the local airport.

When asked if the patterns were merely suggestions, Contrucci said no.

"I believe it's a fairly rigid standard that is followed," he said.

Airport manager Mike Demulling agreed, noting that the FAA once called such flight patterns "recommended" but that word has been stricken from documents.

"It's a required procedure," Demulling said.

He said pilots follow the established paths into and out of airports because obstacles such as trees and tall buildings have been removed to allow for safe operation of aircraft. If pilots were to deviate from the established flight patterns, Demulling suggested, they would be putting themselves and others at risk.

"I think it's safe to say that pilots don't want to die," he said. "We practice risk management all the time."

When questioned about previous testimony from homeowners suggesting that airplanes regularly fly outside the established flight corridors, Demulling said he believes the individuals are mistaken. He testified that it would take a significant and unsafe turn by an aircraft to fly outside the flight patterns.

"It goes past their property but certainly not over," he said.

Krass noted that videos offered as evidence show that aircraft have gone directly over the homes in question, and at low altitudes, but Demulling was unmoved.

"I just don't think it's possible," he said. "Most of these pilots are very careful."

The only time a pilot would deviate from the established flight pattern would be due to an emergency, like trying to avoid a flock of birds, he said. Otherwise they would stay inside the boundaries, even if it was windy, he suggested.

Robert Cohrs, a senior airport planner with consultant Short Elliot Hendrickson, testified that his firm was hired to evaluate the average number of landings and takeoffs at the local airport.

During the peak month of June, Cohrs estimated that there were just 70 takeoffs or landings on New Richmond's main runway each day. During non-peak seasons, daily operations might drop to 30 or 40 per day, he noted.

John Davis, with Ayres Associates, testified regarding an actual airplane count conducted in December 2012, and January and February of 2013. He said of the 102 landings or takeoffs witnessed, all but one fell within the established flight patterns. The one that was outside the FAA corridor was further to the east of the airport and not over any homes.

Krass questioned the timing of the airplane count study, noting that December, January and February are the slowest months of the year at the airport. He also noted that three of the observation days were cut short due to wintry weather, thus not giving an accurate picture of how many airplanes use the local airport on a daily basis.

Krass objected to the use of the recent airplane count study, noting that the lawsuit deals with airport operations from 2007 to 2009. Any data collected later than that, he said, should be thrown out.

Cameron said he would accept the testimony, but would later decide if it should be used to form a decision.

After four hours of testimony and cross examination, the second half of the trial came to a close.

Cameron, who will be recovering from surgery over the next few weeks, gave the attorneys until June 28 to file their closing briefs. He said he would likely begin final consideration of the case after July 1.

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