January 26, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 4

Permit for 26 Mile heliport struck down

The Haines Borough Planning Commission last week in a 3-3 vote denied a company’s request for a permit to use a 26 Mile heliport for commercial helicopter skiing.

Commissioners Andy Hedden, Roger Maynard and Donnie Turner on Jan. 19 supported the conditional use permit for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA). Rob Goldberg, Danny Gonce and Lee Heinmiller were opposed, and Robert Venables was absent.

“There aren’t many of us living up here and it’s a harsh environment, and we’re all neighbors and we help each other,” Goldberg said. “I think that knowingly impacting your neighbors with a condition of noise that’s going to make them unhappy is not a very neighborly thing to do.”

The planners voted 4-2 on several amendments that placed conditions on SEABA, such as limits for hours of operation and fuel storage at the site. Gonce, who backed the amendments, ended up voting against awarding the permit. He was appointed to the planning commission in November

Gonce said he was “up in the air” after hearing testimony on both sides of the issue, but he “could not overcome certain aspects.”

“I wasn’t sure how everybody else was voting, so if it passed, there needed to be some things taken care of,” Gonce said of voting for the amendments. “I’m not one to undo things that still need done, if it passes.”

Much of the discussion at the meeting centered on the borough’s eight criteria for granting the permit, all of which must be met:

• The use is so located on the site as to avoid undue noise and other nuisances and dangers

• The development of the use is such that the value of the adjoining property will not be significantly impaired

• The size and scale of the use is such that existing public services and facilities are adequate to serve the proposed use

• The specific development scheme of the use is consistent and in harmony with the comprehensive plan and surrounding land uses

• The granting of the conditional use will not be harmful to the public safety, health or welfare

• The use will not significantly cause erosion, ground or surface water contamination or significant adverse alteration of fish habitat on any parcel adjacent to state-identified anadromous streams

• The use will comply with all required conditions and specifications if located where proposed and developed, and operated according to the plan as submitted and approved

• Comments received from property owners impacted by the proposed development have been considered and given their due weight

Borough manager Mark Earnest recommended the permit be denied. He wrote that the heliport would cause undue noise, be “harmful to the general health and welfare of the community by introducing a use disturbing the peace and quiet valued by nearby property owners,” and would not align with the borough’s comprehensive plan.

“I recognize, however, that SEABA has legitimate business reasons for seeking to develop the property as a heliport and that many of the factors to be considered by the Planning Commission in deciding whether to approve the conditional use permit could be viewed differently from my conclusions,” Earnest wrote.

Scott Sundberg of SEABA at the beginning of the hearing said Earnest’s report drew an “opinion-based conclusion with no real fact.” Sundberg said the heliport at .6 Mile Chilkat Lake Road, across the Steel Bridge, would serve as the “closest piece of property, with power, to commercial ski areas.”

He said the 26 Mile area already has noise from commercial buses, gravel extraction, a sawmill and snowmachines.

“The evidence shows that (heliport) use is compatible with the existing use in this area and that while some residents do not like the idea, they have had ample opportunity to change the code that protects us all,” Sundberg said. He referred to the Haines Borough Assembly’s approval last year of an ordinance that prohibited heliports in the Mud Bay planning and zoning district.

Sundberg said due to weather and skier-day restrictions, SEABA historically has been limited to no more than 54 days of operation during the Feb. 1 to May 3 heli-skiing season.

He said the commercial fishing fleet at Chilkat Inlet generates noise at 4 a.m., but “that’s economy; that’s people putting food on the table.”

“I am woken up many nights during the summer to diesel engines, while fishermen stretch their nets,” Sundberg said.

The Jan. 19 hearing ran about 90 minutes, and more than a dozen people testified. Several who opposed the permit said heliports should be limited to the current sites at the airport, 18 Mile and 33 Mile.

“What about the residents out (at 26 Mile) that have invested in over 30 years of their lives, making a home, raising your children, having a small farm and making a life for yourself?” asked resident Floy McDowell. “Now when you’re ready to retire, they want to put in a helipad there and take away the peace and the quiet that brought everybody to that area of the valley.”

Resident Sue Waterhouse, who lives near the airport, said heli-skiing boosts the economy.

“I welcome noise; it means we have a thriving business and things are happening, and I’m frustrated that we don’t support somebody that wants to come to Haines and start a business,” Waterhouse said.

Planners should encourage helicopter activity to be based at the airport, where that kind of noise is expected, commissioner Heinmiller said. “Nobody here is saying, ‘I’m against heli-skiing.’”

Hedden said the borough lacked objective measures for some of the permit requirements, such as a decibel level for undue noise.

Maynard said he thought SEABA’s proposal was “really quite well thought out.”

“We need to remember that we’ve restricted them to a couple of landing areas at 18 Mile and 33 Mile that are on private property that they don’t own,” he said.

Venables was out of town for the meeting, initially slated for Jan. 12. When reached by phone this week, Venables said he did not want the commission to revisit the 26 Mile debate, but to instead be “proactive in finding an appropriate location for a heliport” that would be “more easily embraced.”

Turner, who voted in favor of the permit, said he had “a little bit of a problem with how we’re going about this,” because heliports were a use by right when SEABA purchased the 26 Mile property from sister company Big Salmon Ventures in 2010.

Company representatives have cited borough code they claim gives them two years to develop the property under zoning rules in place at the time of purchase, eliminating the need for a conditional use permit.

Goldberg said SEABA has the option of appealing the permit decision to the borough assembly.