Commissioners to address 'safety concerns' associated with tourism helicopter operations

Matt Algarin
In addition to operating out of Destin Airport, Timberview Helicopters has been offering sightseeing tours along the Emerald Coast from this barge, which alternates locations between Destin harbor and Crab Island.

Okaloosa County commissioners are considering changes to the land development code that could directly affect helicopter sightseeing tours in Destin, as well as private airports and residential airparks.

"When it comes to airplanes, the only thing the county can do is regulate zoning and where these aircrafts can take off and land," said Terry Jernigan, the county's zoning and planning manager.

If approved, the proposed ordinance would give the county the ability to limit where private airports and residential airparks could be located in the unincorporated areas of Okaloosa County, such as Destin. These types of operations would be limited, by special permit, to the agricultural, institutional, and industrial zoning districts.

In part, a portion of the proposed language reads "no private airport will be allowed in any other zoning district within the unincorporated area, including water bodies where no specific zoning district has been established."

"Our zoning regulations, for all intents and purposes, stopped at the water's edge," Jernigan told The Log. "The county is not trying to extend its regulatory tentacles all over the airspace... but we do know because of helicopter businesses, our people looked at how crowded the airspace was in Destin."

In this case an airport is an area of land or water used for, or intended to be used for, landing and takeoff of aircrafts, such as heliports, helipads or seaplane facilities.

Depending on the day, local sightseeing tour operators Timberview Helicopters can be seen taking off and landing from a barge in the Destin harbor or along Crab Island.

Currently the company's tourism flights are relegated to the Destin Airport, but flights originating on water bodies aren't something county officials, or officials in Destin, have regulatory power over.

A letter from county officials to Timberview Owner Justin Johnson, dated July 20, 2013, states that "while the subject area is located in unincorporated Okaloosa County, the County Land Development Code does not assign any zoning designation to Choctawhatchee Bay or otherwise regulate helicopter tours on the water."

As for the proposed ordinance, Johnson told The Log that he is "confused" as to why the county would issue him a letter stating they had no regulatory authority on water bodies, but now they are trying to determine where he can operate his business.

"I'm just baffled by what they are trying to do," he said. "I wouldn't have invested in this barge without knowing we could use it first. Now it seems as through they are trying to change that."

Forlong-time Destin boat captain and current county commissioner Kelly Windes, the issue isn't about overregulation, but ensuring that these types of operations are done in a safe manner.

"I feel that we are not trying to restrict business, but trying to address safety," he said.

Federal Aviation Administration Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen told The Log that Timberview submitted "notices of landing" proposals for three floating landing areas.

She noted that the FAA is studying the proposals in accordance with Part 157 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which includes conducting airspace studies to determine whether helicopter operations from floating landing areas can be conducted safely or would impact existing or proposed airspace.

The FAA anticipates issuing a determination later this summer. Until then, Timberview can conduct intermittent helicopter operations from the floating landing areas. Intermittent operations means the site is used or is intended to be used for no more than three days in any one week and there are no more than 10 operations conducted at the site in any one day, according to FAA regulations.

If the proposed ordinance is approved, Kampert told The Log that the current position of the barge "as of the effective date of the ordinance" would be considered the company’s location. If they moved from that location, Kampert said, Timberview would be subject to the new provisions.

County commissioners will discuss the proposed ordinance again during its July 16 meeting at 8:30 a.m. in the Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Building at 1804 Lewis Turner Blvd.

"We've never had pushback anywhere else," said Johnson, who operates helicopter businesses in Key West and Kansas City. "It seems like they don't want me to operate my business."

Jernigan told The Log that the county has no desire to put operators out of business, but they do plan to address safety concerns that have been raised by the public.

"We're not saying you can't do it," he said. "We just saying that we want you to do it from an airport."