Cessnas and Pipers flying out of Fleming Field lift off over the homes, parks and roads of South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights.
Once surrounded by farmland, cities have grown around the municipal airport established in 1939. Regulations for the site have grown, too.
The airport’s tight footprint is a problem as officials try to comply with federal rules. It also limits future plans for development.
“It’s not uncommon to have an airport where a city grows up all around it and all of a sudden there are some issues that come with it that weren’t thought of ahead of time,” said Fleming Field Airport Advisory Commissioner Charlie Wiplinger. “It’s not like land automatically, magically gets added over time to deal with those situations.”
Many smaller airports, including those in Crystal and Eden Prairie, are constrained, said Bridget Rief, director of airport development at the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and officials have to get creative with limited space.
South St. Paul is chopping down trees and buying up property to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements, including rules for a “runway protection zone” — a trapezoidal area beyond the ends of a runway that is supposed to be empty to protect people from crashes.
“The FAA has really put a focus on runway protection zones over the last few years,” Rief said, and as airports plan for the future, they have to look for ways to get in compliance with the rules. The Metropolitan Airports Commission plans to move a Lake Elmo airport runway so the protection zone no longer falls on 5 acres of city property.
In South St. Paul, the city has already moved a community garden and has to remove a duplex and a single family home, a city park parking lot and other structures that have long been located in the protection zone. South St. Paul must also install lighting on tall structures, like power poles, and remove 265 trees around the airport.
City officials say the changes were not prompted by a particular incident at the airport; they are just trying to meet federal requirements. South St. Paul estimates that clearing the area will cost $1.65 million. The FAA is expected to pay 90 percent.
Many of the pilots at Fleming Field are hobby fliers using two- or four-seat planes. Occasionally, neighbors in the small homes and apartments that surround the airport can spot the restored World War II-era B-25 housed at Fleming Field.
But residents of the two houses on South Street that were in the protection zone are gone. They had to move out over the past few months. In May, South St. Paul paid $9,631 to move one family, including $175 to move their clocks and $135 to tune their piano, according to city documents.
Neighbor Chuck Swearingen is nervous about the city’s purchase of nearby homes. He has lived next to the airport for 24 years. He is considering new siding for his garage and his neighbor wants new windows, but they are unsure about the investments, Swearingen said.
“We’re not going to get our money’s worth if a few years down the road they do need to take more houses,” he said.
Rumors about the airport’s future tend to spread around the neighborhood, airport officials said. Swearingen said he is tired of the uncertainty that comes with living across the street from Fleming Field.
City officials said they have no plans to buy more people’s property. The FAA’s recommendation for a runway extension would have forced the city to demolish more homes — but they found another option.
Fleming Field’s 4,002-foot runway is too short for many business jets and planes with 10 or more passenger seats. The FAA recommended a 4,300-foot runway to accommodate those aircraft, according to the airport master plan.
“Bigger planes can land, but they don’t like to because of their insurance and their comfort zone,” City Engineer John Sachi said.
Planes have to fly lighter at Fleming Field, especially if the runway is icy or wet, Wiplinger said. To lighten up, planes take fewer passengers or put in less fuel.
The city wants pilots to be able to “operate to their full potential” but it doesn’t want to buy more homes, said Melissa Underwood, an aviation planner at consulting firm Bolton and Menk who is contracting with South St. Paul.
“We have bought the maximum here,” Underwood said. “So what else can we do to help the pilots here get what they need?”
She and city officials have worked with the FAA to come up with a plan for stopways, which are paved slabs on either end of the runway. Stopways allow pilots more space if they need to abort a takeoff. But they do not count as part of the runway, so the city does not have to buy more property, Sachi said. The airport’s master plan says stopways will cost $500,000 and will be added in the next six to 10 years.
The additional paved space at the end of the runway could entice pilots who would have previously gone to a larger airport, Wiplinger said. Both Wiplinger and city staff were quick to add that South St. Paul doesn’t expect a lot more traffic.
“It just makes it a little easier and a little safer,” Wiplinger said.