December 15, 2011 |

SEABA plans use of 26 Mile heliport

Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures is going ahead with plans to use a 26 Mile Haines Highway site as a heliport, relying on a section of Haines Borough code the company says exempts it from acquiring a conditional use permit to stage heli-skiing tours from the site, according to Mayor Stephanie Scott.

Scott said SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg told her Tuesday that SEABA notified borough manager Mark Earnest and a borough attorney in October that the company would take that approach regarding a 1.3-acre lot it owns across the Steel Bridge.

Borough code allows developers two years from the date property is purchased to initiate development consistent with uses authorized under zoning at the time property was acquired. The rule applies even if zoning for the property changes during the two-year period.

Borough records show that in Sept. 2010, a 1.3-acre parcel of land in a 26 Mile subdivision created by Sundberg was sold by Big Salmon Ventures to SEABA. Licensing papers on file with the state show Sundberg and Nick Trimble, two of four partners in SEABA, also listed as co-owners of Big Salmon Ventures, formed in 2006.

SEABA paid the taxes on the 1.3-acre lot as well as the taxes on an adjoining, 21-acre lot held by Big Salmon Ventures in the past year, according to borough records.

Borough planning commissioner Robert Venables alluded to the two-year-exception law at a May 12 commission meeting where 26 Mile residents approached the borough, seeking a rezoning to keep a heliport out of their neighborhood.

"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 at the May meeting, who called such a move "sneaky." "SEABA has owned that property more than two years. Why is that two-year thing even coming up?" asked resident Chris Jones.

Planning commissioner Lee Heinmiller in May characterized the two-year exception as a "loophole in code" that wouldn’t prevail over the intent of neighborhood rezoning. This week he said that a recent change in code requiring a conditional use permit for a heliport at 26 Mile supercedes the two-year exception.

"Conditional use permit is in code as a definition, not as a zone. It doesn’t matter how they’ve zoned it. They still need a conditional use permit. That’s my understanding of the code," said Heinmiller, who until last week served as commission chair.

Subdivision resident Erica Merklin said Trimble told her one year ago the company wouldn’t override the neighborhood’s wishes. "They’re just so snaky. Maybe the road we have to go down is to have their tour permit taken away… They’re going to cost the borough a bunch more money. We can’t just let this happen. The people who live here year-round are totally opposed to it."

SEABA also will be seeking an additional allotment of 250 skier-days for the upcoming season, according to Mayor Scott.

In an e-mail to borough officials, Scott said that she had a conversation with SEABA co-owner Trimble and that development of the 26 Mile property as a heliport was "in the works."

"(Trimble) believes that the season will go well if SEABA is allotted the requested 1,000 skier-days; if GPS data can be regarded as proprietary; and if the industry can be ‘let alone,’" Scott wrote.

She wrote that Trimble spoke at length "about the inadequacy, if not the outright dangers, of the 18 Mile… and 33 Mile landings." Trimble limited his comments this week to saying his attorney has been communicating with the borough about the heliport for more than a year.

In an interview, Scott said Trimble also cited a change of ownership of the 18 Mile heliport as a reason for wanting to use 26 Mile. George Campbell purchased the property there from Bud Stewart.

"George Campbell wishes to charge for that use. It’s not in SEABA’s business plan to sustain that kind of cost. But I don’t know that any operational decision has been made," Scott said.

Campbell, reached this week, said SEABA was using his property now and that he has talked to the company about use of it during the heli-ski season, but said he "doesn’t have anything in writing."

Campbell wouldn’t comment on whether he was seeking to charge SEABA. "That’s between me and them. We fully welcome them."

SEABA asked to be on the April 14 planning commission agenda to discuss a conditional use permit, then asked to be taken off. The company at the time declined requests for an explanation.

In an April letter to the borough that included recommendations for conditions that would be placed on the permit, the company said Big Salmon Ventures bought the 26 Mile property for heli-ski operations in 2007 and that its value was "negligible" if it couldn’t be used as a heliport.

Scott said this week that she hadn’t thought of the heliport issue while recently seeking dissolution of a citizens, heli-ski "work group" that formulated heli-ski regulations last year. "I was much more focused on the regulations in the air and flight paths and regulations that they stay on flight paths. I was thinking use of property was a zoning issue."