County to Timberview: Cease and desist: Airport says helicopters can’t tow banners, need contract

Matt Algarin
The helicopters from Emerald Coast Helicopters were told by county officials back in May that they were not allowed to tow banners from the Destin Airport due to safety concerns. They are allowed to tow them from Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, if they receive the proper permitting.

After operating at the Destin Airport for a number of years, Timberview Helicopters owner Justin Johnson says county officials have basically issued him a cease and desist order.

"They are saying I can't do anything from a revenue standpoint," he told The Log last week.

Timberview Helicopters calls the Destin Airport its home and they offer sightseeing tours from this location, as well as barges in Destin harbor and at Crab Island.

As part of his other business, Emerald Coast Helicopters, Johnson recently began flying advertising banners behind helicopters. Shortly after pulling a "practice banner" in May, Johnson said he was immediately reprimanded.

"The minute we landed on the ground we were notified that we were breaking the law," Johnson said. "I checked online with the ordinances and there was no ordinances that I could find."

When Johnson asked Deputy Airports Director Mike Stenson, via email, what ordinances he was violating, he received a response via County Attorney John Dowd citing "Sec. 3-86. -Activities; conduct; miscellaneous provisions."

Part (a) reads "The board has the right to, and does hereby regulate, all activities and enterprises using the airport as a basis of operation, whether such operation or activity is aeronautical or non-aeronautical in nature. No commercial operation of any kind or type shall be permitted on an airport without a fully executed lease agreement with the board, containing provisions for strict compliance with these and other relevant standards and regulations containing such other special provisions as may be required under such lease, or other special circumstances which may be applicable to such operations."

In the email Dowd wrote that Timberview Helicopters doesn't have an approved agreement from the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners to operate a business on county property, and until Johnson secures that agreement he is "not allowed to conduct business" at the Destin Airport.

"You can continue to fly, but you cannot conduct business by flying passengers on tours or banners or any other revenue generating source," Dowd wrote.

The email also noted that if Timberview was observed conducting business, airport police would be notified and "action will be taken." Those found in violation of the ordinance can be punished by a fine of up to $500 or can be put in jail for up to 60 days, according to the ordinance provided to Johnson, which he shared with The Log.

Johnson said he and his attorney have already sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, filing a Part 13 complaint against Okaloosa County, "in relation to unjust economic discrimination in violation of Grant Assurance No. 22."

Grant Assurance No. 22 is a rule that applies to all airports that receive grant funding from the federal government, which states that an airport must be available for public use "on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical activities, including commercial aeronautical activities offering services to the public at the airport."

"They are basically restricting the activity, which is illegal," Johnson said. "This is a true violation of civil rights. They cannot discriminately pick what commercial activity they want."

But airport officials say that's not the case.

In an email to The Log, Stenson wrote that county officials do not view "permitted approval for safe operations in the best interest of public safety" as an infringement on Johnson's "civil rights."

"He is simply being asked to abide by the county's due diligence and permitting approval process as per the county's ordinance," he wrote.

For now, Stenson added that Timberview has been conditionally permitted to resume its tourism flights from the airport for 90 days while a sublease agreement between Timberview and the fixed-base operator,  Regal Air Destin, can be finalized and considered by the county commission.

The conditional approval does not extend to Johnson's banner tow business though, Stenson wrote, which are prohibited at Destin Airport due to "safety and capacity reasons given the proximity of residences and populated areas" that surround the airport. He also noted congested airspace within a five-mile radius of the airport.

"Timberview or any other operator wishing to conduct such operations with Okaloosa County's airports with proper permitting will be allowed to do so from Bob Sikes Airport (CEW)," Stenson wrote.

Timberview's 90-day window to resume operations began Aug. 1.

As for Johnson, he told The Log he is growing increasingly tired of the cat and mouse games with the county.

"I just want to operate my business," he said. "Where does it stop?"