Planners OK heliport at 35 mile
Mike Wilson, general manager of Coastal Helicopters, co-owns the 35 Mile property with Alaska Heliskiing owner Sean Brownell. The two have been pursuing the conditional use permit since October, and plan to eventually build a lodge on the property, which already has a foundation, sewer system and commercial well.
“We would like to house our guests there at some point in the future and have a ski lodge just like all the other heli operations around the world are having, because we want to be able to compete with that product,” Brownell said.
Wilson also claims to have a pre-existing right to use the property, because it was functioning as a heliport prior to 2011, when the law changed to require permits for heliports in the general use zone. He claims the heliport has been used about 25-30 days for landing helicopters since the site received approval by the FAA in August 2009.
“We want year-round operation, and to limit the operations would limit the potential business for us,” Wilson said, adding that he would not be happy operating three months out of the year.
Wilson is appealing former interim manager Julie Cozzi’s decision that while Wilson does have a pre-existing right to use the property as a heliport, that right is limited to its historical use, or about 5-10 landings per year.
“That would be inadequate for whatever business could come up,” Wilson said.
The commission took up Wilson’s appeal of Cozzi’s decision at its Feb. 11 meeting. Wilson argued in his appeal letter that limiting use of the 35 Mile heliport is “an arbitrary and capricious decision” because other pre-existing use sites like Porcupine Creek and Glacier Creek don’t have such limitations.
Commission chair Rob Goldberg underscored the importance of the decision the commission was being asked to make. “If we overturn the manager’s decision and say you have a pre-existing right to use this as a heliport, then it opens it up to year-round unlimited use, which is different than just having it be for the heli-ski season,” Goldberg said.
Wilson didn’t elaborate on what operations he would use the heliport for outside of the winter season. (In 1996, Haines Borough residents took an advisory vote in opposition to summer helicopter tours.)
“The safety and remoteness of (the heliport) makes it a great place to have consolidated operations with no limitation on landings,” Wilson wrote.
An opinion written by borough attorney Brooks Chandler also recommended the use be limited to historical levels.
At the recommendation of interim manager Brad Ryan, the planning commission postponed a decision on Wilson’s appeal to see if the group’s decision to issue a conditional use permit changed the attorney’s opinion.
Though the commission struggled with Wilson’s appeal, it unanimously supported approving the 35 Mile heliport for winter use. The main reason appeared to be that it would decrease use at 33 Mile, which Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Brownell admitted is a precarious location.
Brownell said the company has to use flaggers to direct traffic when helicopters are coming in, and he has seen cars swerve when a helicopter flies over and kicks up snow. “I’ve been watching it go on for many years and I just haven’t been comfortable with it,” Brownell said.
Though several people have spoken against the 35 Mile heliport as it has been moving through the commission process over the past several months, others have expressed support.
Jack Smith Sr. turned out last week to tout heli-skiing’s importance to winter tourism and the Haines economy.
“Have you seen a beggar person or a homeless person come rent a helicopter to go heli-skiing? Those guys, they come with money. They stay at the motels, they eat at the restaurants,” Smith said. “We’ve got to support things like that to support Haines.”