The Haines Borough Planning Commission Thursday denied a permit for a heliport off of Chilkat Lake Road near 26 Mile. The tense meeting lasted four hours and often veered into a larger discussion about the borough’s role in regulating heliports in Haines.
Scott Sundberg owns Big Salmon Ventures and heliski business Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, or SEABA. He requested a conditional use permit for the Chilkat Lake Road heliport.
“It’s time to say yes,” Sundberg said. “We’ve been patient. SEABA and Big Salmon have worked with the borough and residents to make this a fair and balanced request. We would have never invested in our time and money in this property if we really felt like it was truly gonna be over impactful, create undue noise.”
Sundberg said, no one was ‘entitled to a noiseless wilderness.’ But several Upper Valley residents disagreed.
“Last winter we had to live with the reality of the helicopters and I have to say it was far more disturbing than I thought it was gonna be,” said Shanah Kinison.
The heliport operated last winter on a temporary conditional use permit. That was granted by the borough assembly after the planning commission rejected the heliport and Sundberg appealed their decision.
“Yeah, last year when the helicopters shows up and people showed up it changed the character of the neighborhood,” said Josh Grimm. “It was a lot louder. I was walking down the street and people were driving like crazy, hollering at me. It felt like I was in a big city.”
Shawn McNamara told the planning commission that people’s personal opinions aren’t what they should be weighing. He said, this is a general use area, not residential, so the commission should grant the permit.
“Now there’s a lot of complainers,” he said. “But this is general use land, you can do anything there.”
After hearing both support and disproval from members of the public, the planners considered their decision. Commissioner Brenda Josephson referred to the concern of noise pollution.
“The challenge comes is, when do your rights end and another person’s rights begin?” Josephson said.
In other words, where do the residents’ right to peace and quiet end and the heliski company’s rights to operate begin? Commissioner Donnie Turner saw a conflict in what the residents were saying. He said, people buy property in the Upper Valley for the freedom it offers. But then they’re asking to restrict the freedom of the heliski industry.
“If you want the freedom to do whatever you want on your property, then you have to let the freedom for the neighbor to do the same thing.”
Turner said, if the residents don’t want helicopters there, they should ask to rezone the area residential instead of general use. Planning chair Rob Golberg argued, it’s not zoned residential, but there are lots of residences there. He and Commissioner Heather Lende referred to the slew of letters they received about the heliport.
“And the comments are overwhelmingly against granting the conditional use permit,” Goldberg said.
That included a letter opposing the heliport from the University of Alaska, a neighboring property owner.
The vote was 4 to 2 against the conditional use permit. Turner and Josephson voted for it, Goldberg, Lende, Lee Heinmiller and Robert Venebles voted against. Sundberg said he plans to appeal the planning commission’s decision.
Throughout the meeting, the commission and members of the public talked about what the Haines Borough Comprehensive Plan has to say about heliports. The plan states that there should be two helipads: one at the airport and the other a public helipad designated by the borough. That would consolidate helicopter operations instead of spreading them out on privately owned land. Commissioner Venebles made a motion for the borough to explore the idea of a public heliport.
“To recommend the assembly set aside funds and task staff to identify sites for a public heliport between 25 Mile and 35 Mile,” Venebles said.
The Chilkat Lake Road heliport was just one of two on the commission’s agenda. They also considered a conditional use permit at 35 Mile from Michael Wilson with Alaska Heliskiing. The commission postponed a decision on the permit for a second time because neighboring property owner Nick Kokotovich came forward, saying he had just a few hours before found out about the proposal.
“I’m gonna build a house up there and I’m gonna retire up there one of these days,” he said. “I do not want helicopters taking off from 35 Mile.”
Kokotovich said his siblings, who also have stakes in the property, had not been notified about the heliport. So, the commission decided to delay their vote until the next meeting.
Finally, the commission discussed the helicopter noise study that was commissioned by the borough for about $40,000. The planners were unanimous in their disappointment. They said the study did not use measurements that factored in the low frequency of helicopter noise. Or as Goldberg put it, “the sounds that you feel, rather than hear.”
Planner Lee Heinmiller put it bluntly. He said the only thing he would use the study for is fire starter.