Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Cost of helicopter noise study soars


The cost of a noise study to monitor the impacts of a heliport near 26 Mile Haines Highway has ballooned from a Haines Borough staff estimate of about $7,000 to nearly $52,000.

The borough assembly voted in April to solicit bids for a helicopter noise study after it voted to overturn a planning commission decision and approved a conditional use permit for a sister company of heli-ski operator Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures to build a heliport at .6 Mile Chilkat Lake Road.

Staff estimated in April the study would cost about $7,000.

Manager David Sosa recently received a $52,000 proposal from the Oklahoma-based architectural and engineering firm Mead & Hunt. The proposal includes four elements, including noise monitoring, noise measurement analysis, a background noise study and a presentation of results to the borough.    

Chief fiscal officer Jila Stuart said staff is recommending the expenditure be inserted into a larger budget amendment ordinance that had its first public hearing last week. The assembly would need to approve the addition to the ordinance.

The borough is negotiating a settlement with 26 Mile resident Jessica Plachta, who appealed the assembly’s decision to issue the conditional use permit in Juneau Superior Court. In court filings, Plachta claimed the assembly violated code when it issued the heliport permit. The applicant did not prove all of the mandatory eight criteria had been met, she wrote.

Assembly member George Campbell this week confirmed in an interview the noise study is part of the settlement negotiations, including whether SEABA will be responsible for paying any of the study’s cost.

“I don’t think it’s SEABA’s responsibility to pay for it. I think it’s the community’s,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the noise study will help remove subjectivity from what constitutes “undue noise,” a term used in one of the conditional use permit’s eight criteria. “There’s a perception that helicopter noise is going to be this huge, ugly, oh-my-god, terrible thing. So let’s take the myth out and find out what the reality is,” he said.

Plachta said in a statement this week the noise study won’t help resolve the tension at 26 Mile.

“I don’t know anyone in our neighborhood who supports the noise study,” Plachta said. “It went from a $5,000 house pet to a $50,000 monster. We made it clear from the start that we didn’t need a noise study. Residents in the area have already heard SEABA landing helicopters at their property – without proper authorization – and many of us have testified at public hearings saying it’s too loud and disruptive to be located so close to residential properties.”

Plachta’s partner Nicholas Szatkowski, who has been working with Plachta on the appeal, said the borough wants the noise study to provide cover for the assembly’s unlawful decision to issue the permit despite a large amount of testimony from residents who said the heliport was too loud and disruptive.

“The assembly said that this testimony, as well as the legal requirement to not cause undue noise, was ‘too subjective.’ So they claimed they needed to grant the permit to find out if the heliport was going to be too loud or not. But because the borough has refused to agree to any maximum noise threshold, determination of whether any measured decibel level constitutes ‘undue noise’ is still entirely subjective,” Szatkowski said.

“With this noise study the borough would try to make that subjective decision – about whether property owners’ rights or lives will be disrupted – without input from the owners themselves,” he added.

Assembly member Ron Jackson said this week he is reluctant to spend $52,000 on a helicopter noise study. “My reaction is, is this really necessary and will it help us to make any decisions?” Jackson said. “Because I don’t know that the magnitude or decibel level of sound is the issue, with respect to helicopters. I think there’s a sort of annoyance factor.”

Helicopter noise disturbance is primarily subjective, he said. “It depends on the individual. Quantifying it (with a noise study) will not really get at that aspect of it.”

Szatkowski echoed Jackson’s point: the decibel levels aren’t the only indicators of disruption.

“There are other characteristics of helicopter noise that make it much more disruptive to many people than other noises of the same decibel level. This fact has been widely studied, and similar results have been found amongst a variety of populations. Helicopters have also been found to be more disruptive than other sounds of the same volume to waterfowl and a variety of wildlife species,” he said.                

Despite Plachta’s appeal, SEABA’s conditional use permit is still valid. It expires March 31.

The assembly is expected to take up the noise study next month.


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