City hopes airport fence will keep deer off runways

City hopes airport fence will keep deer off runways by David Lias Over $150,000 � the majority of which will be provided by a federal transportation grant � will be used to erect a new 10-foot high fence around the perimeter of Harold Davidson Field.

The fence will help the city airport meet Federal Aviation Association guidelines by hopefully reducing the risk of deer/plane collisions on the facility's runways.

At an earlier meeting of the Vermillion City Council, Alderman Barbara Yelverton was critical of the plan, noting that the fence would give the airport the appearance of a prison.

She added that Vermillion perhaps didn't need a fence around the runway, since there have been very few reports of airplanes encountering deer either during takeoffs or landings at the airport.

It was mentioned at that meeting, however, that the FAA's recommendation for the fence came after a biologist studied the area and determined that deer likely would wander on the runway without deterrence.

City Attorney Martin Weeks was instructed to research the potential liability the city may face if it decided to go against the wishes of the FAA and not erect the fence.

Weeks, with the assistance of students at The University of South Dakota School of Law, determined that the city would be vulnerable to court action if it failed to take steps to ensure planes' safety.

"I think there would be no doubt that there would be liability," Weeks said. "The courts deny governmental immunity to the operation of airports, which is kind of a surprising thing, because it's really something like streets and alleys and that sort of thing. I had expected to see that cities would be held less liable."

Weeks said the research shows that South Dakota municipalities, in recent years, have been found to be responsible for airplane accidents involving wildlife. Eight years ago, he said, a plane flew into a flock of gulls while taking off from the Watertown airport. "The city was held liable for negligence for not keeping the gulls off the runway," Weeks said.

In court action last year, he added, Belle Fourche was found liable. The decision, he said, was based on the theory that the city acts much the same way as a business in providing services.

"That's cause for a very high degree of care," Weeks said.

He added that he didn't believe there was any way the

city could issue a written warning to pilots planning to use Vermillion's airport facilities to escape the risk of liability.

Weeks said the results of the biologist's survey of Vermillion's deer problems have become quite well known to transportation officials in Pierre. The fence may not completely absolve Vermillion of any future liability at the airport, "but I think if we had a fence that is 10 feet high, then I would suspect that would be a pretty good defense. Then we would have done all that we reasonably could to keep them off."

The city council accepted the low bid of American Fence and Fabricators for $158,689.

The fence will include a standard type of game fence that is eight feet high, City Engineer Bill Welk said. Two feet of high tensile wire will be added to that.

"It won't have the prison look, but it will be a 10 foot high fence, which is what the wildlife biologist recommended," Welk said.

The awarding of the bid will be contingent on the city receiving an FAA which will pay for all but about $11,000 of the cost of the fence.

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