Closing credits: Park City area helicopter flights stopped amid lawsuit
The Sundance Film Festival drama stretched from the screens to the skies during the opening weekend of the event as on-demand helicopter services flew people to Park City.
It was a situation that quickly moved from a landing zone in a Snyderville Basin field to a courtroom before the County Courthouse reached a settlement that ended the flights over the weekend.
It was an unexpected controversy at the opening of the film festival, pitting Summit County officials against helicopter firms and landowners. The situation was also closely watched by people who live in neighborhoods close to the landing location and along the flight path of the helicopters.
The County Courthouse on Saturday reached two settlement agreements to end the flights. One of them was with the parties involved in UberCHOPPER flights while the other was with the parties tied to helicopter service by another firm called Blade. Both UberCHOPPER and Blade were operating in the Park City area at the start of Sundance.
The settlement agreements called for the helicopter services to stop in exchange for Summit County withdrawing a lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court that attempted to end the flights. None of the sides admitted fault as part of the settlements and the agreements did not call for financial compensation for any of the parties.
The agreements, meanwhile, indicate the helicopter firms are allowed to seek approval for similar flights in the future by securing the required approvals. The agreements do not provide details but outline that, potentially, code amendments could be needed. Summit County in the agreements acknowledged that the helicopter firms "are welcome to apply for permits, code amendments, licenses, title, permission, and certification from Summit County and shall be treated in the same manner Summit County would treat any other applicant."
Summit County Attorney Robert Hilder said there were talks with the Summit County Council and discussions between Hilder and attorneys for the helicopter firms on Saturday. Sundance organizers also spoke to Hilder over the weekend expressing a desire that the flights stop until they were properly authorized, according to Hilder.
Hilder said he anticipates the County Courthouse will eventually receive applications for zoning changes and permits for helicopter-landing locations or for a prohibition on them.
The helicopter services started at about the same time Sundance opened on Jan. 21. There were two take-off and landing locations in the Snyderville Basin, both along Old Ranch Road. The County Courthouse, though, said no application had been filed to operate there. Summit County officials also said there is not a zoning district in the Snyderville Basin that allows a helipad.
Courtroom landing zone
The sides headed to 3rd District Court Friday afternoon for a hearing in front of Judge Kara Pettit. The judge declined to grant a temporary restraining order against the helicopter services sought by the County Courthouse. Pettit denied two applications for temporary restraining orders, which would have stopped the flights for the time being. Hilder and attorneys for the parties involved in the helicopter flights or the landing sites focused on issues like permitting and the types of uses allowed on the land.
Hilder told the judge there had been "no permits sought or received." There is not a recognized use in Summit County’s zoning for helicopter landings, he said.
"It is not a commercial area . . . It is not permitted for a landing," Hilder said.
Pat Putt, the community development director for Summit County, under questioning by Hilder, said he had not been contacted directly about the situation and there had not been an application filed. He said the County Courthouse would need to change its zoning rules to allow a helicopter pad, a process that could take up to eight weeks.
One of the attorneys on the other side, though, questioned whether the Summit County Attorney’s Office sought a temporary restraining order against the proper party. David Jordan sought to learn whether Summit County’s research was accurate and whether the accurate landowner DA Osguthorpe Trust — was named in the case.
The Osguthorpes are a large landowner in the Snyderville Basin, but there was a discussion about the conveyance of the property. Jordan said there was no basis to grant a temporary restraining order if the wrong landowner is named.
Hilder countered that the temporary restraining order request was based on protecting health and safety and that the County Courthouse’s filings also named the helicopter parties. Putt, responding to Hilder, said it is not unusual for a government to take action against an entity that is not the landowner itself, such as a leaseholder.
Hilder conceded the ability to name the proper landowner was problematic on Friday afternoon, but he said the temporary restraining order sought to stop the activity of the helicopter flights itself. He said one of the parties named, called Air Resources, is the user. Hilder told Pettit it is believed the proper party is named, but he was not yet able to provide the details.
The hearing, meanwhile, recounted briefly the talks between the helicopter companies and Summit County officials in the last days prior to the opening of Sundance. Jordan said there were negotiations on Thursday about a resolution that would have allowed landings at a helipad at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
"Everyone shook on it," he said, describing that the Summit County side later said otherwise.
Hilder responded by saying Summit County attempted to accommodate the situation but later could not more forward.
Pettit told the attorneys toward the end of the 90-minute hearing she was uncomfortable making a ruling on the request for the temporary restraining order with the information she had culled.
In a prepared statement released by Uber after the settlement, a spokeswoman for the company said Uber remained at Sundance with vehicle transportation.
"We may no longer be in the air, but Uber operations continue to soar on the ground where we remain committed to offering riders a world-class experience at the Sundance Film Festival, and to getting festival-goers from point A to point B reliably and safely," the spokeswoman, Taylor Patterson, said.
Uber later said it had completed approximately 30,000 vehicle trips in the Park City area between Thursday and Sunday, triple the number of trips during the same time period in 2015. Of the approximately 30,000 trips, 5,000 of them departed from the Uber Lounge in the flagpole lot on Swede Alley, Uber said.
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Buses, trains and gondolas doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they make up the transit alternatives for the mountain transportation system the Central Wasatch Commission is trying to create, mostly in the Cottonwood canyons.