Jim Erchul is having a hard time with proposed safety rules for areas surrounding the St. Paul Downtown Airport.

His organization, Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, plans to build dozens of houses along Rivoli Bluff on the city's lower East Side, overlooking downtown.

If the safety rules were adopted as proposed, he might not be able to build so much as a stoop because it would poke into protected airspace.

About 60 people showed up to a hearing Thursday night at the downtown airport terminal to weigh in on the proposed ordinance that is meant to minimize the damage on the ground if a plane crashes.

The main concerns were with height restrictions that could mean no new trees on the State Capitol grounds or no new housing; prohibitions on ponds and other things that might attract birds and rules that would forbid a new baseball stadium in Lowertown.

"What is the problem you are trying to correct?" asked resident and former city council member Tom Dimond.

It's mind-boggling, he said, that a plan could be drafted that doesn't allow for planting anything on the state Capitol grounds. He also noted that restricting ponds and other things that attract birds goes against planning efforts by the city and other groups to restore the riverfront.

"Scrap this proposal and quit wasting the public's time," he said.

Required by state

The safety zone ordinance is separate from Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements. All airports in Minnesota are required by state law to adopt safety zone plans, and St. Paul is 30 years overdue in adopting its ordinance.

There are three zones in the ordinance. The "A" zone doesn't allow for any structures, while the "B" zone allows some limited building. The B zone prohibits schools, churches, gas stations, stadiums, ponds and other uses that draw lots of people or birds. Both zones basically encompass flight paths off the ends of runways.

There's an exception in three "established residential neighborhoods," located in the southern portion of the lower East Side, eastern portion of Lowertown and part of the West Side Flats.

The "C" zone deals with height restrictions and surrounds the airport for one mile, with the exception of bluffs.

West Side resident Kathryn Engdahl wondered whether the enormous maple tree in her yard would need to be cut down to 30 feet tall.

Said East Side resident Cheryl Peterson: "We don't want future development opportunities to be parking lots."

City of St. Paul planner Allen Lovejoy noted some concerns the city had with the proposal, especially how height restrictions would affect current -- and future -- downtown buildings, including a possible St. Paul Saints ballpark. Not being able to build the $35 million ballpark would be a substantial economic loss, he said.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission is leading the effort to create the safety zone plan, and a special board with representatives from the commission and cities of St. Paul, West St. Paul and South St. Paul have been meeting over the past year to hammer out the proposed draft.

Even though the proposal was called overly restrictive by many Thursday night, it's relaxed compared to a state recommended model plan.

Unique location

The downtown airport, also known as Holman Field, is in a challenging location, bounded by a river and shadowed by bluffs, downtown buildings and neighborhoods.

It's the second-busiest airport in the MAC's reliever system, with nearly 111,000 takeoffs and landings in 2008. It brings in more than $110 million to the local economy each year, according to a 2005 Wilder Research study.

Aviation crashes are rare, but many that do occur happen within two miles of airports. Four people died in a rare midair collision that dropped remnants of two planes in Lowertown in 1992.

But a recent safety analysis shows that the probability of a crash in St. Paul is less than one in 10 million flight operations.

That fact alone, said many at the hearing, suggests that some of the proposed building restrictions should be relaxed.

There will be another public hearing in the months ahead.

The state transportation commissioner must approve the ordinance, then it must be adopted by the board and cities.

To see the draft ordinance, go to www.metroairports.org.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148