February 20, 2014 | Volume 44, Number 7

Heliport try denied; SEABA to appeal

Scott Sundberg, co-owner of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, is appealing a Feb. 13 Haines Borough Planning Commission decision denying his application for a heliport at .6 Mile Chilkat Lake Road.

The commission voted 4-3 to reject the application, but subsequently recommended that interim manager Julie Cozzi approve the permit with conditions including a one-year trial period, borough monitoring of noise levels and a “very limited,” pre-approved number of landings.

It voted 6-1 on the final motion to approve, with commission chair Rob Goldberg opposed.

Sundberg, who filed the appeal Tuesday on behalf of SEABA’s sister company Big Salmon Ventures, said he decided to appeal to ensure the borough follows through with what was discussed at the commission level. As the commission’s decision is only a recommendation, appealing ensures the assembly will have to take up the issue and decide whether and how to conduct noise testing, he said.

“What we are saying is that we need to have this testing done. We need to have it done by a third party,” Sundberg said. “We’ve been trying to work with the community and the borough to come up with solutions that are based in fact.”

About a dozen people turned out for the Feb. 13 public hearing on the permit, with the majority opposing a heliport. Most opponents focused on the potential noise disturbance, including Shanah Kinison, who recently bought property near the proposed heliport site.

Kinison said the neighborhood is peaceful, and that any noise would be intrusive.

Area resident Erika Merklin, who was home when SEABA co-owner Nick Trimble and planning commissioner Danny Gonce conducted decibel testing in the area, said the helicopter noise during the testing was “disruptive.”

In addition to the numerous complaints about potential noise pollution, residents seemed irritated and perplexed as to why the push for a heliport in their neighborhood hasn’t died. In 2011, SEABA applied for a permit to build a heliport on a nearby 1.3-acre piece of property, about 400 feet from the current proposed spot. The request was rejected by the planning commission and the borough assembly.

Resident Becky Hunt, who has lived in the area for 28 years, said she is as opposed to the heliport as she was the first time the question came up. “I’ve had to come here over and over and over again,” Hunt said. “It seems preposterous to me that we’re sitting here talking about this again.”

Resident James Sage said he thought the heliport was a good idea, though he admitted he doesn’t live in the area. Ken Waldo, who owns property a little less than a mile away from the proposed site, said he also supports the idea.

“We can’t just keep shutting everything down,” Waldo said.

Sundberg said the borough needs to conduct third-party decibel testing to put the issue of subjective noise complaints to rest.

 “We feel that the greater demand for a healthy economy that builds on recreation and ecotourism outweighs subjective and speculative determinations that our proposed heliport would create undo noise, safety and welfare issues to the surrounding area,” Sundberg said.

Building the heliport is integral to Big Salmon Ventures’ plan to construct a $5.5 million eco-lodge on the property, Sundberg said. The lodge would operate nine months annually and offer guided fishing, mountain biking and other activities in addition to heli-skiing.

Interim manager Julie Cozzi said the assembly would decide Tuesday whether to hear the appeal. If they do, the issue could go to the assembly in March.