Heliports were a central topic at the Haines Planning Commission’s meeting Thursday. They discussed what the commission chair called a ‘complicated’ situation of a heliport request at 35 Mile of the Haines Highway.
This is the fourth time the planning commission has talked about the 35 Mile heliport, and the conversation isn’t over. Property owner Michael Wilson requested a conditional use permit for the heliport a few months back. Then, at a December meeting, his partner Sean Brownell of Alaska Heliskiing said they believed they had use-by-right situation, because helicopters have operated out of the 35 Mile heliport since before 2011, when the borough put additional restrictions on heliports.
The planning commission asked then-acting manager Julie Cozzi to make a decision about whether the heliport was use-by-right.
“She reviewed their material and she made a decision that yes they did have a pre-existing right to use the property, but only at the limit which they had historically been using it, which is five to 10 landings a year,” said commission chair Rob Goldberg. “So she said yes, but she put a severe restriction on the number of landings.”
Wilson is appealing Cozzi’s decision. He writes in his appeal that limiting landings is “an arbitrary and capricious decision that is in violation of our rights.”
And there’s another limitation that Cozzi interpreted from borough code: if the helipad were to be used for commercial ski tour landings, it requires a conditional use permit.
“Julie said even if I approve this as pre-existing use for a heliport, in order to operate out of there as a heliskiing business, the site has to have a conditional use permit from the planning commission,” Goldberg said. “So we really have two separate things in front of us that are tied together.”
The commission was originally scheduled to hear Wilson’s appeal at Thursday’s meeting. But Goldberg decided to postpone the hearing for a couple reasons. One, Cozzi is on vacation, so she’s not available to answer questions about her decision. And, it takes four votes from the commission to overturn Cozzi’s decision. There were only five out of seven commissioners present at Thursday’s meeting.
“The appellant has to get four out of seven votes,” Goldberg said. “When two members are gone, I felt it tilts the playing field against the appellant.”
The appeal hearing is now scheduled for the Feb. 11 planning meeting.
Commissioner Brenda Josephson asked whether the commission or borough assembly was considering the possibility of one public heliport where all heliski businesses operated. That idea is part of the borough comprehensive plan, based on public input.
But Goldberg said it’s a moot point. That’s because he reached out to the three local heliski business owners about the idea already. He asked if they were open to operating out of a site at the end of Chilkat Lake Road, in return for some kind of benefit like eliminating the cap on skier days. The two biggest operators – SEABA and Alaska Heliskiing, said no. Goldberg said Brownell gave him a list of reasons why not.
“They don’t want to be close to each other and competing for the same terrain that’s close to the site,” Goldberg said. “They like being apart. They just don’t want to go for this idea of a community heliport and having one spot in the Upper Valley.”
So the planning commission is back where they started – deciding one by one on conditional use permits for private heliports.