Residents of Mile 27 of the Haines Highway and borough officials shared clashing accounts of how a controversial heliport permit was granted ahead of a planned meeting to review the conditions of the permit next week.
The rehearing was originally scheduled for June 27, but was postponed to July 11. The hearing will start at 6 p.m. and precede the regularly scheduled assembly meeting.
Residents of the area say the planning commission didn’t follow the borough’s own process or comprehensive plan when it issued a permit to George and Lynette Campbell for a heliport on May 11, something borough officials deny. And residents charge borough officials with turning a blind eye to repeated land-use violations by the Campbells.
The borough determined the area where George and Lynette Campbell proposed to build a heliport was used for industrial use. But on-the-ground reporting by CVN found a majority of properties in the area have residential homes.
Photos shared with CVN also show the Campbells using earth-moving equipment next to a salmon stream despite a law that restricts development within 25 feet when building under a conditional use permit.
The borough said the development near the bridge was allowable because it was for a nearby airstrip that doesn’t require a land use permit, and not specifically for the heliport.
Origins of the controversy
The Campbells bought their property – a narrow strip of land in a spruce forest near the Klehini River – in 2017. Last year neighbors began lodging complaints including photo evidence of unpermitted helicopter landings on the Campbells private airstrip. Under Haines Borough Code, heliports require a conditional use permit from the planning commission.
In January, three months after the complaints were filed, Kreitzer sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding the Campbells stop landing helicopters, along with a $100 fine.
After receiving the cease-and-desist, the Campbells applied for a conditional use permit on April 5, which is required under borough code to operate a heliport. At a May 11 meeting, the planning commission approved the permit, despite numerous protests from neighbors.
Since then, protests have only grown louder.
On June 13, Nicholas Szatkowski and 17 others who live near Mile 27 of the Haines Highway appealed. They asked the planning commission to rehear the heliport permit, and pointed to what they described flaws in the process. They also pointed to similar heliport permits near the same area that had been denied. And, they said the Campbells had a history of flouting borough laws, first with unpermitted helicopter landings and then by developing over the Little Salmon River, despite local, state, and federal restrictions.
The motion to rehear the borough planning commission’s decision failed in the assembly 3-2, but the motion to rehear the conditions imposed on the permit passed unanimously, setting up a contentious meeting to rehear the permit on July 11.
Meanwhile, the borough so far hasn’t enforced the $100 fine, since it says the Campbells have been cooperating with the investigation.
Industrial vs. residential
The borough manager said in a report to the planning commission that the property in question is surrounded by heavy industrial uses making it an appropriate spot for a heliport. But neighbors – and on the ground reporting by CVN – show that only a handful of the dozens of properties in the area could be considered industrial.
During a site visit, CVN identified what appear to be residences on 17 properties and only four properties that could be considered industrial within half a mile of the proposed heliport. Several large tracts were undeveloped.
Kreitzer said the borough’s assessment relied on a site visit in late April and determined that the land around the airstrip was heavy industrial “by looking at what’s on the property.” She also said that she used parcel viewer and the overall zoning to make her assessment.
By code, the borough is required to notify property owners within 500 feet of a proposed conditional use. There are approximately five properties in the 500 feet radius of the heliport, only one of which CVN identified as having industrial equipment. The others were undeveloped.
While Kreitzer agreed that a one-mile notice for heliports made more sense, “you can’t interject subjective judgment… you can’t just ignore code,” she said.
When asked about how she determined if the conditional use permit was in harmony with surrounding land uses, she pointed to the airstrip, which the Campbells built in 2017.
“I know that there are homes nearby, but it’s a determination that I make and the planning commission determines whether they agree or not,” Kreitzer said.
Planning commissioner Richard Clement agreed. He said the planning commission “tries to promote things in the comprehensive plan, and one of the things pointed out is more commercial activity.”
Code clashes with Comprehensive Plan
According to Title 18 of Haines Borough code, the planning commission must find that a proposed project meets all eight specific requirements before approving a conditional use permit.
In their appeal to rehear the permit, the appellants say that seven of the eight requirements were not met. Commissioner Scott Hansen voted to grant the Campbells the conditional use permit. He said he stands by his decision, but said that when considering an appeal, he wanted to see clear evidence that the eight requirements weren’t met.
“The appeal should focus on those eight points …and reveal that the Planning Commission did not follow standard procedure,” said Hansen.
Former planning commission chair Lee Heinmiller thinks the appellants have a strong chance based on previous borough decisions to deny similar applications.
“If they take it to court, the borough’s gonna do what they’ve done in the last 20 years, which is lose,” he said.
One of the other requirements for a conditional use permit is that “the specific development scheme of the use is consistent and in harmony with the comprehensive plan and surrounding land uses.”
In their application, the Campbell’s state that the heliport would “support and grow the local business” and “build upon Haines’ competitive advantage,” both of which are economic development goals outlined in the borough’s comprehensive plan.
While the borough’s 2012 comprehensive plan outlines economic development goals, the plan also covers other growth areas. In the plan’s Future Growth Maps the private lands on Chilkat Lake Road are designated as “Rural Settlement”, which is defined as areas where “a more rural lifestyle is valued and protected (through zoning) from incompatible and disruptive activities.”
Those designations haven’t made it into the borough’s zoning codes, despite being written more than a decade ago.
“Rural settlement is just a proposed zone,” said borough clerk Alekka Fullerton. “It’s just an idea of what we want to happen.”
Clement had a similar interpretation. He said that while the planning commission gave the comprehensive plan its due weight, at the end of the day “the comprehensive plan is a dream list of what we would like to become, not what we can do today.”
Neighbors also cited precedent of previous denials of several heliport permits for a heliskiing company just a few miles away. Clement said he wasn’t convinced of the merits of the argument.
“[The appellants] have to prove that the conditions are identical,” he said.
Neighbors have also criticized what they see as illegal construction over the Little Salmon River, an anadromous stream that runs through their property.
At the time the bridge was built, the property was zoned for general use, which doesn’t place borough restrictions about building near salmon streams, despite state and federal permitting requirements from Fish & Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Campbells contacted Fish & Game before building the bridge around 2015, before they purchased the property, according to Greg Albrecht, a habitat biologist at Fish & Game. A regional representative told them at the time they didn’t need a permit, though the department didn’t have any documentation of the interaction, Albrecht said.
In the past few months as the heliport controversy heated up, neighbors raised concerns about the unpermitted bridge, Fish & Game visited the site on June 22.
“The footprint from the bridge is quite small,” said Albrecht. After the visit, Albrecht said “I was pretty confident [George Campbell] didn’t put fill in the river.”
Albrecht said the state’s policy has changed since George Campbell first contacted them, and the department is now requiring Campbell to apply for a permit. Still, he said he didn’t see any cause for concern that the bridge was disrupting salmon breeding.
Following its site visit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also determined that the bridge should have been permitted. The Corps is now requiring an after-the-fact permit for the Campbells, but are not enforcing any penalties because “the property owner is cooperative and it was determined that the bridge in question had minimal impact to fish habitat,” according to an email sent by John P. Budnik, an Army Corps spokesperson.
Under borough code, a conditional permit can only be granted if there’s no erosion, contamination, or significant adverse alteration of fish habitat to anadromous streams. One of the added conditions to the heliport permit was that no development is allowed within 25 feet of the stream banks.
The Campbells had already built a temporary log bridge over the stream long before they applied for the conditional use permit, which Kreitzer said meant the 25-foot rule didn’t need to be followed.
But neighbors say the Campbells have continued to develop the area. On June 9, Erika Merklin, a resident of the area, sent a photo to the borough of a backhoe on the banks of the river after the conditional use permit was granted.
In an interview Wednesday with CVN, Kreitzer dismissed the photo “because it was clearly taken by trespassing, and you can’t use a photo taken by trespassing.” Merklin did not respond to a request for comment about the allegation before deadline.
Merklin also included a written complaint describing the work, but Kreitzer dismissed that saying “the work is being done to lengthen the airstrip, not for the heliport. The heliport is farther up from the stream.”
If new construction related to the heliport is within 25 feet of Little Salmon River, “that would be a violation, [and] I could revoke the permit,” Kreitzer said in an interview.
In an interview at the property, George Campbell told CVN that he was continuing to work on the area. He said planned on expanding the bridge so that he could extend the existing runway an extra 1,000 feet.
The situation has left many neighbors feeling voiceless and felt the borough is greenlighting the project without proper process.
“Who in their right mind wants to live next to a heliport?” said Hans Baertle, whose property is adjacent to the Campbell’s airstrip.
Neighbors have submitted formal complaints and two neighbors told CVN during a visit that they opposed the heliport, but didn’t want to share their names. Some of Baertle’s neighbors shared their concern in public comments submitted to the planning commission during their May 11 meeting, where the conditional use permit was approved.
“On more than one occasion prior to January 2023 helicopter noise was so loud I could not carry on a phone conversation in my home with doors and windows closed,” wrote Maria Paquet.
“We have lived at Mosquito Lake for 42 years and have experienced how loud and intrusive helicopters are when they fly over a neighborhood. The noise reverberates off the mountains before you can see it and after it is out of sight,” wrote Carol and Dave Pahl.
The first requirement for a conditional use permit is that the “use is so located on the site as to avoid undue noise and other nuisances and dangers.”
The planning commission determined that this condition was met because “the heliport is located toward the south end of the airstrip, visually obscured from neighboring views by 80 foot trees, which should also contain dust disturbance from helicopters and reflects the shorter flight path.”
In the manager’s recommendation, Kreitzer noted “There are no specific noise standards adopted by the borough to make ‘undue noise’ a less subjective factor in CUP decisions. ‘Other nuisances and dangers’ are not defined terms.”
The 2015 noise study near Mile 26 was used by the Planning Commision to deny SEABA a heliport permit. Then borough attorney Brooks Chandler said the study “provides a reasonable basis for the commission’s decision (that) the proposed heliport at this location fails to avoid undue noise.”
When asked about how much air traffic they anticipate having on the airfield, the Campbells “not a whole lot.” Historically, aircraft have landed an average of once a month or less on their airstrip, he said.
However, George Campbell said that he is a businessman, and will consider different uses for his heliport.
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify a quote by commissioner Scott Hansen. The previous edition may have caused confusion around commissioner Hansen’s position on the planning commission decision. The edits clarify that he supports the granting of the conditional use permit.