Editorial: The Helicopter Saga Continues...

By / Editorials / Wednesday, 07 December 2016 05:00

Managing Editor

The Carolina Beach Planning And Zoning Commission voted unanimously at their October meeting to recommend Town Council amend the zoning ordinance to prohibit commercial aircraft landing facilities anywhere in Town.

The day before the Council was to consider their recommendation at a November 1st, meeting, the Town notified the public the item would be withdrawn from the Council's agenda.

Multiple reasons were given including part of the Planning Commission's recommendation was to designate Carolina Beach as a "congested area" to limit aircraft (helicopters) from flying over the Town below 1,000 feet.

They made that altitude recommendation based on information provided by the Planning Department. Turns out the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in charge of that, the Town has no authority. Also, Assistant Town Manager Ed Parvin said there were other issues that arose following the Planning Commission meeting including how to properly define "aircraft."

So the item was delayed.

Now a new proposal will be presented to the Planning Commission at their December 8th, meeting at 6:30PM.
Assuming the those minor changes would be made before returning to the Planning Commission to hear basically the same recommendation - No! - the Planning Department instead is proposing to allow helicopters to land and take off during special events. (See report on page 1-A).

Basically, a property owner can make a request three times a year for Council to issue a special event permit allowing one landing and take-off per each event. A fourth permit could be issued by the Town Council for a special event that allows a helicopter to land and take off multiple times within a 24 hour period.

This means a helicopter tour business could operate tours all day with a special event permit one time per calendar year. However, that's per property. So if you found two separate properties, that's two all day special events within a year.
The proposal by the Planning Department would require an applicant to get permission from the Town Council and require them to notify area property owners prior to that Council meeting.

That seems to provide a venue for citizens to support or oppose issuing such a permit, but it stands to reason all permits will be issued if the Council supports allowing for such events in the first place.

After all, if they approve this amendment, the notification process would really just become a routine Council would have to endure before issuing a permit. And without clear grounds for attaching conditions or criteria for denying issuance of a special event permit, Council would find it hard to actually deny a request.

This year the Town has dealt with an ongoing controversy over whether or not to permit a company to offer helicopter tours from vacant land across from Town Hall. In May the Council heard from the owner of High Tide Helicopters of Oak Island, NC - Jessica Ward - about her proposal to operate that business on a limited basis.

Following a holiday weekend event in 2015 that generated a lot of complaints from area residents, the May 2016 meeting was filled with people opposing the idea of permitting such a business to operate. They cited concerns over safety and frequent noise impacting quiet enjoyment of their residential properties.

Ultimately the business owner submitted an application for a permit to operate the tour business on that vacant land near Town Hall on a limited basis. Town Manager Michael Cramer denied the application. On September 20th, Cramer informed the Council the deadline for the applicant to appeal his decision to the Board of Adjustment had passed at 5pm September 19th.

The issue will go back to the Planning Commission at their December 8th, meeting and then back to Council in January.
The Council should be prepared to receive the same recommendation from the Planning Commission in January to prohibit commercial aircraft businesses on the ground, which they do have the authority to prohibit. They just can't regulate aircraft in flight. The Planning Commission was pretty clear about their individual opinions on the issue.
This is a value-based zoning decision that's based on input from the interested-public.

There are a lot of people who have voiced opposition to permitting such operations in Town. The primary concerns are impacts from noise and safety concerns.

The Council recently held extensive discussion about complaints regarding large gatherings at a beach front home generating loud noise and annoying the neighbors and they expressed concern the owners are operating a rental or hotel-style "business" in a residential area causing negative impacts for their neighbors. Granted, the two situations are not identical, but in both cases there are people who are concerned with negative impacts on their right to quiet enjoyment of their properties.

At some point the Council will have to pick a side. The pilots, the willing passengers or the voters who don't want aircraft operations occurring anywhere in Town.

Citizens should attend the December 8th, meeting and voice their opposition or support. Hopefully this will finally be resolved when Council votes in January.


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