With proposed changes to the county’s land development code in the works, Timberview Helicopters might be forced to operate solely out of the Destin Airport.
“It’s not, in my view, the government’s job to pick winners and losers, and unfortunately that’s just what would happen if the county adopts this amendment,” said Attorney David Powell, who is representing the tourism helicopter company. “Whether it’s intended or not, that’s the practical effect.”
During their Nov. 6 meeting, county commissioners held the first of two public hearings to address and discuss proposed amendments to the land development code, which in part would limit the operation of sightseeing helicopter tours, gliders, and hot air balloon rides.
Previously, helicopter tours and other aerial operations were allowed in the general commercial (C-3) district, but would be restricted to the airport industrial park zoning district under proposed changes.
Elliot Kampert, county growth management director, told commissioners that the changes would be made to reflect what had happened in the state legislature.
“We’re amending our code to be consistent with the statutes,” he said.
The debate over tourism helicopter flights is one that’s been on the forefront for months in Destin, as area residents, city leaders and county officials publicly worry about safety risks and noise associated with two separate tourism helicopter businesses.
In June, the county imposed a 180-day moratorium on helicopter sightseeing companies. But that prohibition expires in December.
Destin’s first helicopter tourism company, Timberview Helicopters, had been operating out of the Destin Commons parking lot for about a year, but was shut down by the county because they didn’t have the appropriate permits. Since moving their operations out of the Destin Commons parking lot, Timberview has been spotted taking off and landing from a barge in Choctawhatchee Bay and the Destin harbor, raising the ire of city leaders.
Timberview is currently operating out of the Destin Airport, which has little to no visibility, owner Justin Johnson told The Log. He said his company has lost about 70 percent of its revenue since they were forced to relocate.
If the proposed amendments were adopted, Timberview would be unable to relocate to a more desirable location, since they didn’t have a development order prior to the moratorium. Johnson maintains that the county told them, before enacting the moratorium, that a development order wasn’t necessary for Timberview since they were already operating as a business.
“Our competitor (Beach Helicopter) did file for a development order, and they were granted that, and now they are grandfathered in,” Powell told commissioners. “It’s a little inverse in that the competitor, that I understand caused the uproar, is now going to be able to operate and my client, who has operated, is going to be shut down and forced out of business.”
Beach Helicopter isn’t flying yet but their development order, to construct a 6,000-square foot helipad between Longhorn Steakhouse and BankTrust, was approved by county commissioners before the moratorium was enacted. Beach Helicopter received its fair share of complaints as well, due to its proximity to the Kelly Plantation subdivision, but commissioners determined that they could not reject the development order since it fell in line with county regulations.
But the Nov. 6 public hearing wrapped up with no comments from the public. And Timberview’s attorney asked county commissioners to grandfather them in along with Beach Helicopter.
“I would encourage you to rather than enact a blanket prohibition like this, to look to other counties and other methods of regulating this type of business,” he said.
County Commissioner Wayne Harris was on the same page as Powell.
“I’m inclined to agree. In my opinion they should be grandfathered in because they were there,” he said. “That’s my opinion, but I’m only one vote.”
County Commissioners will revisit the proposed changes during a second public hearing Nov. 20. They will also be provided a brief from Powell, outlining his request.
“My client can simply not operate his helicopter business out of the airport profitably with a competitor out there operating on Highway 98,” Powell said. “If the county enacts the proposed amendment, it will effectively be granting a monopoly to the competitor.”