May 19, 2011 |

Battle brewing over heliport; Residents seek zoning change; operator silent

Residents at 26 Mile say they’ll push for rezoning to keep a heliport out of their neighborhood, despite a suggestion voiced at last week’s Haines Borough Planning Commission meeting that a loophole in code may effectively thwart their intent.

Heli-ski company Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures has sought a heliport there, off-and-on, for several years, in the face of strong opposition by neighbors.

About a month ago the borough adopted regulations requiring a conditional use permit for heliports in the highway’s general use zone. Heliports were previously allowed there outright.

Neighborhood organizer Jessica Plachta told the commission that 44 landowners signed a petition supporting the rezone, and eight supported a heliport.

"We are at a point where we do want our neighborhood protected from certain heavy-duty, industrial activities that aren’t compatible with our residential lifestyle," Plachta said.

Plachta told the assembly her neighborhood pays more than $40,000 annually to the borough in property taxes, and gets few borough services in return. "We don’t need more services, just the right to decide our future for ourselves."

Commissioner Robert Venables, however, pointed to a section of code under which developers are allowed two years from the date property is purchased to initiate development consistent with uses authorized under zoning at the time the property was acquired. The rule applies even if the zoning for the property changes during that two-year period.

"If there’s a corporation-to- corporation exchange next week, they’d have two years under the current code to exercise their right to develop that property" under existing law, Venables said.

The statement touched off emotions of rezoning supporters, who called such a move "sneaky" and wondered aloud if the commission was plotting against them. "I don’t want (SEABA) to get some idea that all they have to do is switch names of their company," said Erica Merklin.

"(SEABA) has owned that property more than two years. Why is that two-year thing even coming up?" asked Chris Jones.

Venables said such an option was the property owner’s constitutional right, but that didn’t sit well with commission chair Lee Heinmiller.

"If a neighborhood proposed to rezone an area as these people have and someone came in and said I propose to do something in that zone before they get theirs done, I would tell you it wouldn’t happen… If you come in and tell me you found a loophole in the code you think you can beat us into the ground with over planning, then you’ll have to find someone else to chair these meetings," Heinmiller said.

Venables said he expected SEABA would seek a conditional use permit for a heliport there before the proposed zoning goes through.

Scott Sundberg, an owner of SEABA, has said he wants to establish a heli-port there. Sundberg recently requested to be on the commission’s agenda seeking a conditional use permit for a heliport, then withdrew the request. He declined comment for this story.

Floy McDowell, a 25-year resident of the neighborhood, said a heliport would be "highly intrusive" and would reduce her property value.

Resident Matt Whitman said SEABA’s owners are "fairly good friends" of his, but he didn’t trust them as business people. "I don’t think they’re (good for) their word. I think the minute we give them any little doorway, it’s just going to expand."

Resident Keith Kaiser said he opposed the rezone, as he already makes a lot of noise in the neighborhood.