New start at heli-ski question; Mayor appoints 9-member panel
The Haines Borough’s new heli-skiing work group held its first meeting Tuesday, and members said they want to avoid the heated tone of previous discussions about the industry.
"I think that this is a better way to resolve some of the issues than to try to do it through assembly meetings, where we’re way more structured, we have two more pages of agenda that is weighing heavily back here, and people get kind of testy," said Mayor Jan Hill, who appointed the group and opened the meeting.
The nine-member group includes Hill, assembly members Daymond Hoffman and Joanne Waterman, residents Rob Goldberg, Joe Ordonez, and Carolyn Weishahn, Sean Brownell of Alaska Heliskiing, Sean Gaffney of Alaska Mountain Guides and Scott Sundberg of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA).
Alaska Heliskiing and SEABA are local heli-skiing companies. Gaffney said at the meeting this week that his firm also wants to offer heli-skiing here. Borough manager Mark Earnest will provide staff support for the group.
"We’re going to have several meetings in a short period of time, I expect, because we have a big job to do, and we want to get it done before the industry season starts," Hill said.
Hill said meetings will be limited to 90 minutes so they are "focused and short and sweet and to the point." The next meeting has been scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
Hill said the members must "leave our baggage at the door," and cited the example of her mother, who had expressed disappointment in Haines politics.
"Nothing was harder for me to swallow than to hear my mother call Haines a ‘contentious little community,’" she said. "She moved to Juneau. She meant it. She’s lived here all my life, and to hear that come from my mother just broke my heart."
Relationships have been worn over years of heli-skiing debates, Brownell said. He said Haines is "the gem of the world" for the industry, and noted at the start of his 20 years as a heli-skiing guide, permits were not required.
"When I got here, this whole place was wide open," he said. "We’ve gone through a series of compromises over the years. Every time there’s been a compromise, which has been more than one – there’s been at least seven that I can think of – the heli-ski industry has lost something."
The borough has increased total skier days since it started regulating the industry about a decade ago.
Brownell said he wants the same opportunities as his competitors across the state.
A proposed commercial skiing tour ordinance proposed by attorney Brooks Chandler was put on hold in October so the work group could iron out more details. On Nov. 4, the Haines Borough Planning Commission concluded that heli-skiing concerns should be dealt with through the tour permit application process, not through zoning.
In October, the assembly considered extending restrictions on skier days to activities beyond heli-skiing and whether to offer commercial ski tour permits to as many as four companies for a season that would run from Feb. 1 to May 3.
Gaffney said this week Alaska Mountain Guides also is interested in offering heli-skiing in the borough. Currently, the Haines Borough issues permits for heli-skiing tours to only two local firms, SEABA and Alaska Heli-Skiing.
"Alaska Mountain Guides has been involved in commercial skiing and commercial skiing involving helicopters since ’92," Gaffney said. "We’ve asked the borough to amend our permit to include heli-skiing specific use, and that’s part of my interest in being here as a part of this group, as well."
The company offers heli-skiing in Skagway.
Gaffney said a similar program in Haines primarily would serve past guests. He said "the type of skiing that they’re interested in is not as demanding" as the type through Alaska Heliskiing and SEABA.
"We are talking about heli-skiing while you’re operating," Gaffney told Brownell and Sundberg. "Our season’s been starting end of February, first of March, and that’s, essentially, the same timeline that we’d be looking at."
Near the end of the meeting, Sundberg asked for some suggestions from Weishahn. Brownell earlier had said a spot near Weishahn’s 40 Mile home is "the sunniest place in the valley" where heli-skiing is allowed and said if the map was opened up more, he could use that location less frequently.
Weishahn advocated a strong monitoring system for helicopters and said flight paths should "avoid residences as much as possible."
"We do have a flight path in the upper valley that (pilots) do follow and goes behind the mountain and that reduces greatly the amount of noise that reverberates from the mountain over to the residences there," she said.