Summit County considers temporarily banning helicopters
While Summit County is still buzzing from a helicopter controversy, the County’s Planning Department is asking County Council members to consider enacting a temporary ban on new helicopter landing sites in the Snyderville Basin.
The County Council on Wednesday will consider a six-month moratorium prohibiting helicopters from landing in the Basin. The move follows the controversy caused by two helicopter services that shuttled Sundance Film Festival-goers in January from Salt Lake City to Park City.
The service prompted dozens of complaints from residents in the neighborhoods near the landing sites and an unsuccessful attempt by the Summit County attorney’s office to halt the flights. An agreement ending the flights was eventually reached between the two companies offering the services and the county.
However, the episode revealed that the county’s ordinances concerning such services are unclear. According to a County Courthouse staff report prepared in anticipation of Wednesday’s meeting, helicopter transportation is prohibited because it is not listed under the development codes’ Land Use Table.
"But as we found out during Sundance, as there were helicopter services attempting to land in the basin without having a permit, it was asserted by the companies that our ordinance was not as clear as it could be," said Dave Thomas, Summit County’s chief civil deputy attorney. "While we believe it was clear that helicopters are not in our use table, and that makes them a prohibited use, there seemed to be some confusion."
The temporary ban would apply to helicopter transportation and general aviation related services, excluding emergency services for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and medical helicopters. If approved, it would go into effect 15 days after the vote.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over the operation of helicopters, the county is responsible for enacting zoning regulations concerning the location of landing sites, Thomas said.
"The FAA has some concurrent regulations governing safety and operation of helicopters and has certain parameters you need to have to have a safe landing site, but what the FAA doesn’t say is where exactly you can land. That is up to the county and our land-use regulations to say here are the areas where this can take place," Thomas said.
"What we want to do is avoid what happened during Sundance this year and so everyone is clear the kinds of services that were being discussed during Sundance will not be allowed during these six months," he said.
Thomas said staffers will take the time to closely examine the county’s ordinances and regulations to determine how to better regulate helicopter services in the future.
"It gives us six months to do that," Thomas said. "Meanwhile everything else is put on hold so a helicopter service can’t come in and try and assert that they can start landing without a permit nor can they come in and go through the application process."
A temporary ordinance can be enacted by the County Council without a review by the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission. In 2010, the topic was presented to commissioners, but the conversations did not result in any new ordinances governing helicopters.
"We just want the six months to go through a process and get some permanent regulations in place," Thomas said.
Public interest surrounding what happened in January prompted staffers to consider whether they should be addressing the issue in greater detail, said Peter Barnes, Summit County’s planning and zoning administrator.
"We’ve had the conversations before, but in response to the recent activity and complaints and actions we’re more than happy to go back and have that conversation and ask the wider questions of whether we should be considering these services," he said.
However, Barnes said, public opinion has been "pretty clear and very antagonistic" toward the idea. He said staffers are not considering allowing any additional landing zones at this time.
"We think that was pretty clear," Barnes said. "If we want to have a wider range and identify potential uses perhaps we need to get more sophisticated with what ordinances we have in place."
Any changes to the county’s development code concerning helicopters and allowed uses would be presented to the Planning Commission and then followed by a series of public hearings before it is considered by the County Council.
To view the temporary ordinance, go to http://summitcounty.org/DocumentCenter/View/3167.
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