It was like a ‘war zone’ as helicopters buzzed Basin during Sundance
It was just before 10 p.m. on Jan. 21, the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, and the buzz had already stretched into a normally quiet Snyderville Basin neighborhood.
Helicopters were flying toward Old Ranch Road. It was likely not known at that moment, but it later appeared the helicopters were headed to one of two landing zones in the outskirts of the neighborhood, off Old Ranch Road. The helicopters were shuttling festival-goers from Salt Lake City to Park City, avoiding the notorious Sundance traffic to cut time off the trip.
The service quickly drew scorn in the neighborhood and within a few days propelled Summit County attorneys into a courtroom in an attempt to stop the flights. UberCHOPPER, under the same corporate umbrella as the Uber vehicle service, drew the most attention although another firm, called Blade, also operated at the start of the festival.
Michele Morris, who lives close to the landing zones, at 9:55 p.m. that night sent an email to Roger Armstrong, the chair of the Summit County Council. The email and others released by the County Courthouse in response to a request under state open-records laws filed by The Park Record illustrate the dismay the flights caused shortly after they started.
Morris told Armstrong the sound of the helicopters was "unbelievable." She worried about an elk herd in the vicinity of the landing zones and said Summit County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers indicated supervisors "told them there was nothing they could do." She asserted there was not a permit or a license for the operation.
"I felt like I was in a war zone. I know that there is a herd of bull elk behind 5200 North which is where the copters are landing," Morris wrote. "If my dogs were upset, I’m sure the elk were upset."
She said a permit and hearing were needed to build an unrelated trail, and the helicopter service "makes me wonder who is paying whom."
"Let’s let Uber know that Park City is not the Hamptons," she said, referring to an exclusive community on Long Island, N.Y., where UberCHOPPER has operated.
Earlier that day, at 4:14 p.m., Armstrong and other Summit County officials received an email from Brook Connery. The subject line was "helicopters!!!!" Connery was brief as the email expressed concerns.
"As you are probably aware, there is a Uber helicopter service landing regularly (like every 10-15 minutes) on Old Ranch Road. Really??? So they can’t get a permit to do this in PC proper so they do it in the Bain? Sundance is disruptive enough w/o a helicopter service landing on Old Ranch Road. Thx," Connery wrote with a typographical error in the word Basin.
After a reply from Armstrong, Connery said she saw two helicopters "in the sky at the same time so they must be doing a bang up business. Brazen to operate like this." She added she hoped the County Courthouse and the Federal Aviation Administration "can fine them heavily."
At 1:39 p.m. on Jan. 21, meanwhile, Armstrong received a message from an Old Ranch Road resident, Lisa Johnson, saying she was in her backyard as a helicopter flew overhead approximately 200 feet off the ground. It landed at a residence, took off toward the south and returned to land at the same place after 15 minutes, the message said, referring to a second helicopter landing elsewhere.
"I am a commercial airline pilot and don’t appreciate being buzzed by a helicopter at such a low altitude in a residential area," Johnson wrote.
The Johnson email indicated she contacted the FAA and a Summit County Planning Department official, leaving messages, and the Sheriff’s Office. She said she got a busy signal when she called the Sheriff’s Office.
"Any help from you regarding this matter would be appreciated. Hopefully this won’t continue as I’m sure Summit County doesn’t intend to rezone the basin as an airport," Johnson said.
The County Courthouse was preparing a response to the helicopter services as the messages were received. Summit County Attorney Robert Hilder and attorneys for the property owners where the landing zones were located appeared in 3rd District Court on Jan. 22, as the County Courthouse attempted to obtain a temporary restraining order against the services. The judge, Kara Pettit, denied the request for a restraining order, saying she did not have enough information to order a stoppage by the end of the hearing.
Summit County and the parties involved in the helicopter services the next day reached settlement agreements ending the flights in exchange for the County Courthouse withdrawing a lawsuit that sought the same result. 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.
In some of his responses, sent prior to the hearing and settlements, Armstrong said the county attorney wanted an injunction, but it would be difficult to obtain one immediately. He said the FAA had been informed of the situation.
"I regret the disruption to the neighborhood. Uber does not have permission to operate a helicopter service in Summit County and was told yesterday it could not land in the Basin. The helicopter service is in violation of County codes," Armstrong wrote in one of his responses, sent to Connery on Jan. 21 at 7:10 p.m.
The next day, at 9:48 p.m., he wrote back to Connery after she sent another message thanking him for the efforts and criticizing Uber as a "very arrogant organization."
"Thank you Brook. Wishing you a peaceful night," Armstrong wrote.
‘One after another’
In an interview after the release of the messages, Armstrong said people who lived in the neighborhood were unaware the flights were planned. The helicopter services did not share details about the locations of the landing zones with the County Courthouse prior to the flights starting, Armstrong said.
"Suddenly, if you live in the area, on Thursday helicopters start flying," Armstrong said.
He said he received three or four calls regarding the flights and an additional four or five text messages.
"When it becomes one after another . . . that starts to be extremely burdensome," Armstrong 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.