County may restrict copter businesses: Owner says Timberview is following all FAA rules

Matt Algarin
During tourism season, the helicopter was taking off and landing on this barge floating in the bay near Crab Island.

New tourism helicopter operations may be restricted to taking off and landing at the Destin Airport if Okaloosa County Commissioners approve a change to the land development code.

“If they are able to pass that and move forward, I’ll be happy with that,” said Councilman Jim Wood, who has been closely following the tourism helicopter debate. “As long as Timberview continues to move around… the game continues and I want to address that.”

In June, city leaders, through Mayor Sam Seevers, sent a letter to county commissioners urging them to align their current code with the city’s, which requires air traffic to take off and land from the Destin Airport.

During a recent city council meeting, Wood told his colleagues that he wanted to make sure the county “didn’t forget about us” when it came to the mayor’s letter, since a formal response hadn’t been received yet.

Well, Wood’s message was heard, and just days later, County Commission Chairman Don Amunds told The Log he had sent a letter to the mayor with the county’s official response.

In the letter dated Oct. 16, Amunds wrote that the county’s planning commission had already heard the proposed language changes and county commissioners were slated to take up the matter next month.

Amunds said the ordinance was re-written based on “safety concerns.”

Destin currently has one active tourism helicopter business, Timberview Helicopters, and another, Beach Helicopter, which is in the process of constructing a 6,000-square foot helipad on a parcel of land between Longhorn Steakhouse and BankTrust. Since Beach Helicopter already has a development order, they are grandfathered in and would not be affected by the proposed regulations.

Timberview, which was spotted taking off and landing from a barge in the Destin harbor during the Seafood Festival and from Crab Island before that, has been using the Destin Airport as its point of operation after originally calling the Destin Commons parking lot home.

“Timberview Helicopters is always following all FAA rules and all other agency requirements in its flights and take off locations. Mr. Wood’s continued attack on our business is not what we would expect from an elected official,” Timberview owner Justin Johnson said in an e-mailed statement. “We would hope all city and county governments would support all business that operate within all regulations in the area … being that this is there civic duty not to pick on a business that they do not like.”

With commissioners slated to vote next month, Wood told The Log he would be anxiously awaiting the outcome, saying it was nothing personal against the helicopter companies, but it was all about safety.

“In the city of Destin, our rules require us to fly out of the airport, and that’s how it should be,” he said.