Summit County weighs in on helicopters
February 23, 2016
Helicopter transportation unexpectedly dominated headlines during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the question left after the dust settled was simply, what happens now? And although the Uber Chopper seemed to catch people by surprise, in truth, helicopters were being discussed by the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission all the way back in 2010.
During that discussion, County Planner Sean Lewis proposed an ordinance that would create two classes of helicopters: Private, non-commercial helicopters with more than seven take-offs and landings in any one-week period; and commercial helicopters. Private helicopters would be allowed to operate under a Low Impact Process (LIP) permit, while commercial flights would require a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). Private flights of less than seven take-offs and landings per week would not require a permit.
At that meeting, Commissioner Mike Washington expressed concern. He said he did not want to see any deterioration in the environment nor did he want to see more noise and more overflights in the area. He wanted to avoid increasing the number of helicopter flights if possible, and even said he was not sure he wanted to facilitate any flights that were not already taking place.
Any flights into neighborhoods should be regulated, he continued, and he worried that the proposal on the table would encourage flights into neighborhoods.
Several commissioners agreed that commercial flights should be limited to industrial areas or "well within resort operations." There was also some question as to the impact of increased helicopter flights on wildlife.
Summit County officials declined to go on the record concerning helicopters in Summit County in 2016, but Public and Community Affairs Coordinator Julie Booth did issue a statement to The Park Record Monday discussing the issue. Helicopter flights, the statement read, are prohibited.
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"Under land use, the Snyderville Basin Development Code states that, ‘If it is determined that the proposed use is not similar in nature to any of the uses listed, the use shall be prohibited unless and until this title is amended to specifically include the use,’" the statement reads. "Unless there is an amendment to the Code, the status quo is that there is neither a use in existence nor a use similar in use. The activity is therefore prohibited at this time."
If an operation were to show an interest in running helicopter flights in Summit County, the statement went on, it would require a code amendment.
"Any time an individual or organization seeks to make changes to the Land Use Code, there is a process in place that must be followed," it reads. "This process includes staff discussions followed by Planning Commission work sessions and public hearings, followed by County Council work sessions and Public Hearings. It is a process that requires thoughtful deliberation by County staff, Planning Commissioners, and the County Council."
The Sundance Film Festival and the helicopter flights that drew so much attention were a learning experience for the County. The statement read that in the future, staff will try to anticipate a situation like this and address it before it goes too far.
"We learned from the Sundance experience that while we have processes in place, when the economic rewards, including income and publicity, are substantial there are parties who will try to bypass our processes," the statement reads. "Staff will continue to reach out to parties who show an interest in expanding uses beyond those currently allowed."
Summit County staff is willing to work with private parties, whether it be a rideshare program like Uber or a company proposing a different use, on how they can work within current land use code. Those private companies, though, have to also be willing to work with the County.
"We talk with any applicant wishing to propose a new land use concept and work with them on feasibility of the proposed use," the statement read. "This can be a time-consuming process which requires the applicant to communicate early with the County to allow the process to unfold."
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