Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 2.16.23 PMBy Greta Mart/KNHS

The final draft of a controversial helicopter noise study was published last week on the Haines Borough website. The study measured noise levels around helicopters at a proposed 26 Mile heliport site. But some residents and experts say the measurements used in the study don’t get at the whole picture.

“We found that the levels are really quite quiet there when nothing is going on. And then when the helicopters operate they get louder and then they last for…sometimes for quite a few minutes,” said Paul Dunholter, one of the study’s coauthors.

He says the study’s purpose was to simply document and quantify noise levels at and around the Mile 26 heliport.

“That would be how loud is it, how long do you hear it and then if you did a cumulative level of how much exposure is it during the day and what that would be,” Dunholter explained.

Results from noise studies are usually made meaningful by relating them to existing standards or regulations, as the report points out. But there aren’t any local noise standards in Haines, or even in the state.

That could change in the future.

“The issue of noise – and helicopter noise – had been a subject of concern in the borough for years. But there hadn’t been official readings taken, there were different people that had different perspectives on it. The rational for doing this at this point is to get some objective data,” said Haines Borough Manager Dave Sosa.

Sosa says the final cost of the noise study was $41,300.  The borough assembly voted unanimously last year to authorize the study. And he says it was not the threat of an ongoing lawsuit that prompted it.

“Initially there was no litigation. It was…we’ve got this opportunity, let’s do a noise study and then the litigation happened so it kinda put the brakes on things for a while,” said Sosa.

The litigation started after Big Salmon Ventures, LLC asked for a permit to use its property off Chilkat Lake Road as a heliport.  The company is affiliated with Southeast Alaska Back Country Adventures, which takes visitors on heliskiing trips. Company president Scott Sundberg has said he plans on eventually building a winter sports village and eco-lodge on the site.

After the assembly granted Sundberg a one-year conditional use permit to build a heliport on the yet-undeveloped property, 26 Mile resident Jessica Plachta appealed the decision in court. Plachta and Sosa say they are still waiting for a decision on the case.

As for the noise study, Plachta calls it fundamentally flawed. She’s worried that borough administrators will establish local noise regulations based on what she considers an inaccurate and misleading study.

“I think citizens need to be concerned that there could be heliports in their neighborhoods that wouldn’t qualify in any other municipality that has noise regulations,” said Plachta.

The study’s results say the measured average levels at three monitoring sites outside the helipad itself were “generally below” the limits what would be acceptable for a residential neighborhood next to an airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“What we call the ambient noise levels there were low, as you would expect. And when you introduce a helicopter flyer over it’s going to be a loud event. And there is no question that people will hear it. One the problems we run into that people are affected by noise levels many different ways, ” said Ryk Dunkelberg of Mead and Hunt, the firm hired by the borough to provide the study.

The study itself was done by a subcontractor, BridgeNet International, which has also conducted noise studies on Juneau’s sightseeing helicopter industry. For seven days in March, BridgeNet staff measured noise levels at four locations at and around the 26 Mile heliport. The exact locations were selected by the borough.

The study’s authors used standard noise measurements established by the FAA. One is called A-weighting. It’s used to mimic how the human ear hears loudness or sound pressure. Critics of the study say that since A-weighting favors high-frequency noise, it’s not a valid way to measure helicopter sound, which tends towards the lower frequencies.

Aviation noise experts say A-weighting is the only logical way of assessing helicopter noise at this time.

Yet some governmental organizations have recognized that it may not be adequate. Dr. Paul Schomer was one of the authors of a helicopter noise study prepared by the FAA for Congress in 2004. Schomer says while the metrics used in the Haines noise study were adequate, they don’t present a complete picture.

“Vibration and rattle are definitely not assessed by A-weighting. When it causes rattle there is a big increase in annoyance that isn’t covered by A-weighting. In studies we did, it’s equivalent to a 10 to 20 DB shift. That’s huge,” said Schomer in a telephone interview last week.

Borough Manager Sosa says the study’s parameters were decided by the Assembly.

“No one ever really brought up doing a vibration study but my sense that would have required more equipment and I assume more expense would be involved as well,” said Sosa.

Besides criticizing the methodology of the study, many of the public comments included in the final draft say it was a waste of money. Even the owner of the heliport, Scott Sundberg, says he initially didn’t see the need for it.

“I didn’t think it was necessary but at this point I…I can see that it was,” said Sundberg, adding that after the assembly has a chance to review the study, he will likely resubmit an application to keep operating at the 26 Mile heliport, from Feb. 1 through May 3.

Sosa says the study was necessary and will be used by the planning commission “as they study options.” One of those options is to rezone the neighborhood around 26 mile and Chilkat Lake Road. The zoning now allows pretty much any use.

“How do we determine what happens someplace? That’s what zoning is about. So even though there are houses there, it’s not zoned residential. It’s a general use area,” said Sosa.

Administrators say 26 Mile residents have never asked for their neighborhood to be rezoned – from general use to residential. To do so, 51 percent of area land owners would need to sign a petition to the planning commission requesting it. Although many residents have spoken out against the heliport, not everyone feels that way.

“I have no qualms with a heliport there…none at all..no, no, no, I have no problem with it. I just think the money was wasted on the study because common sense says that helicopters are loud on take-off and landing. But when I hear them… I hear money,” said Eagle Bluff Drive resident Joy Paquet. She says she would love to see an eco-lodge built in the area because it would provide local jobs.

Sosa says contractors from BridgeNet will brief the assembly and the public on the noise study at an upcoming meeting. The full study can be found at hainesalaska.gov.