A Haines Borough Assembly meeting that lasted nearly nine hours this week after it was continued to a second night resulted in a split decision for the heli-skiing industry.
On a 4-3 vote Tuesday tipped by Mayor Stephanie Scott breaking a tie, the assembly rejected a special event allowance for two heli-ski firms that sought to open nearly 10,000 acres of terrain for a month-long photography contest.
Hours later, with only seconds to go before a midnight deadline for assembly action, the assembly voted 5-1 to overturn a Feb. 13 borough planning commission decision, effectively granting heli-ski tour operator Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures a one-year conditional use permit for a heliport at 26 Mile Haines Highway.
But on Wednesday, during assembly comments at the meeting’s close, member Dave Berry told members he’d changed his mind from opposing the special event in a proposed ski area near Mosquito Lake’s Four Winds Mountain.
Berry said a “great uncle and a good friend” who came to visit him Wednesday told him that goats were out of the Four Winds Mountain area this time of year and in the Ferebee area instead. “Those animals are not there. That’s a wind-blown area. They’re not in that area now,” Berry said Wednesday, asking for reconsideration of the vote.
Berry and assembly members Debra Schnabel and Joanne Waterman had voted Tuesday against the special event allowance at Four Winds and two other areas in Chilkat Inlet near Pyramid Harbor. Members George Campbell, Diana Lapham and Jerry Lapp had voted in favor.
Department of Fish and Game wildlife management biologist Ryan Scott on Tuesday had recommended against opening Four Winds and the two other areas, citing disturbance of near-term, pregnant goats as among his concerns. Mid-April would be a particularly sensitive time for goats, Scott said.
Heli-ski companies sought the event allowance, saying it would provide valuable, additional areas to ski during a winter when the snowpack is low, opening dangerous crevasses and exposing rocky areas.
On Wednesday, Schnabel and Waterman opposed Berry’s motion for reconsideration of the decision. Schnabel also urged members not to decide the issue without allowing another public hearing. “Voting tonight would be an egregious step to take. We have to vote on this with public comment, regardless of how it ends up. We will be perceived by the public as disingenuous.”
A standing-room only crowd turned out for the meeting Tuesday, which started with a 4:30 p.m. workshop on the event request. Only a handful of residents showed up for Wednesday’s meeting continuation.
Campbell spoke Wednesday against waiting for more public comment, saying delays would cut into a March 15-April 10 window for the special event assembly members had proposed the previous night. “We know what we’re going to hear (from the public). I don’t think we’re circumventing the public in any way, shape or form. I don’t know why we’re on pins and needles for this very small event.”
The assembly agreed to reconsider the special event decision, for the Four Winds area only, at its March 25 meeting.
Tuesday’s decision to approve the 26 Mile heliport also came after a reconsidered vote. Late in the meeting, SEABA’s appeal was effectively denied when Waterman and Schnabel voted against it. (Votes of five assembly members were required to overturn the commission’s decision.)
Schnabel then asked for reconsideration of the vote, following a statement from the audience that denial of the appeal would mandate a two-year waiting period before SEABA could again seek a conditional use permit. (Planning commission chair Rob Goldberg, who made the statement, said in an e-mail Wednesday it was incorrect and apologized to the assembly.)
Schnabel, who tried to attach issuance of the permit to construction of a proposed $5.5 million ski lodge at the site, also said she wanted to see the borough conduct a series of landings and take-offs at the site “and have them monitored and have us present to make a value judgment on whether a heliport can be supported.”
The lodge, Schnabel said, was the difference between SEABA’s recent request for the conditional use permits and the company’s previous attempts to site a heliport there. (SEABA has sought a heliport site there since 2008, and the assembly and planning commission each rejected the idea two years ago, citing concerns about noise and safety, many coming from residents of a nearby subdivision.)
“My understanding was that there was a big investment in the wings and that wasn’t going to happen until there was a heliport… I’m not interested in approving just a helipad,” Schnabel said.
In its motion rejecting the commission’s Feb. 13 decision, the assembly Tuesday said the commission “had given undue weight to consideration of noise.” Conditions the assembly placed on the permit included prohibiting certain types of helicopters and restricting use to a single company and to use between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Waterman proposed an amendment that would limit heliport operation to between 8:30 a.m and 4:30 p.m. “with continued noise measurement and monitoring.” She and Schnabel were its only supporters. “Now the borough has no commitment to that neighborhood – great,” Waterman said after the vote.
Waterman maintained that SEABA’s proposal had not met eight criteria required for granting a conditional use permit, including one that says the proposed use must be “consistent and in harmony with the comprehensive plan and surrounding land uses.” Schnabel said she believed the eight criteria had been met, with the possible exception of that one, which she said “gives me some pause.”
In a section about tourism, the borough’s comprehensive plan cites the 2011 controversy over the proposed heliport at 26 Mile and said it “raised a larger question of whether a heliport on public land should be developed to consolidate helicopter activity. To effectively plan for future heliport use the borough should work to establish a criteria that clearly defines the public health, safety and welfare issues it desires to address, define the characteristics a suitable site would have such as acceptable noise levels and distances from residences, systematically evaluate possible sites, and if a site is identified and developed offer incentives (e.g. increased skier days) and disincentives to encourage its use.”
Moments after the midnight vote to grant the permit, Schnabel said: “I see this as the only way we can test what we need to know.”
Residents of the area spoke strongly against the permit. Resident Becky Hunt pointed to existing heliports at 18 Mile and 33 Mile. “Most people don’t want the level of heliport traffic that will happen if this is awarded... I think SEABA is going to keep asking for more, just like they keep asking for more (heli-skiing) area. They just keep asking and asking and asking, trying to beat us down until they win.”
SEABA co-owner Scott Sundberg cited a decibel test conducted by planning commission member Danny Gonce and said the findings showed flights conducted there are no louder than conversational speech. “A snowmachine, in my opinion, is much louder than an A-Star helicopter.”
Sundberg’s business partner Nick Trimble said the company “never will be interested in flying summer anything out of there” and said they’d use only one helicopter at the site.
Assembly member Campbell said the planning commission had erred by ignoring the results of the decibel test.
Lapham, in arguing for the permit, drew a distinction between the two companies. “In my opinion, Big Salmon Ventures, not SEABA, have shown they want to be good neighbors and they are receptive to the wants and needs of the neighborhood.”