A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

The saga of the 35-Mile heliport has come to an end, for now. After seven planning commission meetings, the property owners finally got what they were hoping for: permission for unlimited, year-round operations. At a meeting Thursday, the commission approved the conditional use permit, with a requirement that it come back for review in three years.

In February, planners voted to allow heliskiing at the 35-Mile location. But that permit only applies to about three months out of the year.

Property owners Sean Brownell and Mike Wilson say they want to use the helipad for charters and refueling outside of that time limit. They have a use-by-right that’s restricted to 10 non-heliskiing landings per year, based on the helipad’s historical use.

Brownell says they’ve used four of those landings in the last month to fly a TV crew around and accommodate refueling for Constantine Mineral Resources helicopters.

“A conditional use permit will get us away from being bound by 10 landings and we can operate like a normal business and say ‘yes’ to somebody who wants to refuel,” Brownell said. “And I think we also know that if we wanted to do anything more than a charter business we would have to apply for a tour permit.”

But some planning commissioners asked, where’s the line between charters and tours? And, Chair Rob Goldberg pointed to six letters from Upper Valley residents. All of them are opposed to allowing year-round unlimited use at the 35-Mile location.

“This isn’t something that has no impact,” Goldberg said. “It’s impacting residents who don’t want to hear the noise and it’s certainly impacting wildlife.”

Brownell said that permitting the heliport might actually mean a reduced impact on residents. He said that’s because he would move his helicopter operations away from 33 Mile, to the more isolated 35-Mile location.

“We’re not asking to increase helicopter traffic, we’re just asking to facilitate whatever helicopter traffic is going on in the valley,” Brownell said.

The commissioners agreed that 35 Mile does appear to be a safer, more suitable heliport location. But opening use there won’t close use at 33 Mile.

“As much as I would like to get rid of all the other heliports and make this the one, we can’t do that,” said Commissioner Heather Lende.

Lende expressed concern that the commission wasn’t listening to citizens’ protests over the proliferation of heliports in the Haines area. She said it seems like businesses are given more consideration than residents.

“And I think our residents are starting to get upset about it,” Lende said. “And you’re seeing it in all kinds of uprisings about decisions that are being made.”

Even though some of the commissioners were hesitant about the fact that charters could turn into some type of tour business, most were persuaded with the argument that allowing 35 Mile use wouldn’t increase traffic. Commissioner Rob Miller said it could improve things by decreasing landings at 33 Mile.

“I don’t see that we’re opening up a can of worms that already isn’t open,” Miller said.

Commissioner Donnie Turner pointed out that 33 Mile is allowed unlimited use already. That right was grandfathered in, because the heliport was in use before new restrictions were put in place.

“You know, the helicopter traffic that is in the valley is already in the valley,” Turner said. “They can already charter. So the fear that we’re opening something up that’s not already existing is not very valid to me.”

Goldberg asked if the commission should put some conditions on the permit to give weight to the resident concerns. The group voted 4-3 to impose a three-year review for the permit.

Then, in a vote of 6-1, the commission approved the year-round conditional use permit for the 35-Mile heliport. Lende was the only vote in opposition.

Goldberg said in three years, when the permit comes back to the commission, they’ll get to hear from residents about whether it’s improved their situation or not.