With a unanimous vote Tuesday, Okaloosa County Commissioners have essentially sequestered Timberview Helicopters to operating out of the Destin Airport.
“I think what we are doing is fulfilling our obligation of reasonable zoning regulation,” recently elected Commissioner Nathan Boyles said. “We’re not running Timberview out of Okaloosa County, we’re not even running them out of Destin; they can move to the airport and operate.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the second and final public hearing where county leaders would discuss proposed amendments to the land development code, which would limit the operations of helicopters, gliders, hot air balloons and other sightseeing operations to the airport zoning district.
In June, the county imposed a 180-day moratorium on helicopter sightseeing companies. But that prohibition expires in December.
Since moving its operations to the airport earlier this year, Timberview Helicopters owner Justin Johnson says his company has lost 70 percent of its revenue.
Over the past few months, the tourism helicopter company has been seen taking off and landing from barges in Destin harbor and on Crab Island, much to the dismay of some locals.
“We consider it a safety issue, as well as a noise issue because we are not able to sit out on our balconies; we were not able to open our doors because the noise levels were so loud,” East Pass Towers resident Virginia Hickman told commissioners.
However, David Powell, an attorney representing Timberview, told commissioners that flying from barges wasn’t the ideal situation.
“My clients don’t want to land on barges, they don’t want to have to rent barges and they don’t want to have to take people out to barges,” he said. “They just want to run a helicopter business and they just want a place where they can land and take off and do business because the airport is not feasible.”
During the commission’s previous meeting Nov. 6, Powell had asked the county to consider “grandfathering” his clients into the existing code requirements, along with Beach Helicopter, who will be operating off of a heliport between Longhorn Steakhouse and BankTrust along U.S. Hwy. 98 and Commons Drive.
While commissioners ultimately agreed to adopt the proposed changes, Commissioner Wayne Harris asked them to play “Devil’s advocate” briefly.
Harris, who supported the changes, told his colleagues that he was “cautious” due to the fact that the county would be “changing the law in the middle of the stream.”
“During the period of time that Timberview was working toward this (permitting) the law allowed it, and now we are saying we are going to change the law because this all came up and it’s all predicated on the fact that a company has come forward and wants to do this,” he said. “I guess the stuck in my craw is that C-3 (zoning district) was authorized… and in good faith, Timberview, and or both companies, did what they needed to do to get their businesses operating.”
“If we do something like this, are we not interfering with commerce?” he said.
For Commissioner Kelly Windes, there wasn’t much debate.
“I’m not ready to sit here and kowtow to an attorney that comes up here rattling his saber, that I know is not in the best interest of our people and defies common sense,” he said. “The way I see it is if this board can’t protect our people from all of these rulings and all of this history seems to be in favor of this newest ordinance, then who’s going to protect them — the next step is a judge.”
With the ordinances passed by the commission, the clerk of courts office must file copies with the Department of State within 10 days, and the changes will not go into effect until they are properly filed.
A message left for Timberview owner Justin Johnson wasn’t returned before press time.