City looks to keep copters in check

Matt Algarin
A helicopter approaches a floating platform in Destin’s East Pass on Wednesday morning.

Councilman Tuffy Dixon says the city of Destin needs to do something about helicopters landing in places other than the airport.

“I’m a little bit worried they are going to gravitate toward our harbor if we don’t close the door,” he said.

During the city's Oct. 21 City Council meeting, Dixon proposed a motion that would have the city staff draft an ordinance that would prevent helicopters from taking off and landing in Destin harbor. The motion was passed unanimously.

Destin currently has one active tourism helicopter operation Beach Helicopter, which operates from a helipad between Longhorn Steakhouse and BankTrust. Timberview Helicopters, which was based out of the Destin Airport, was essentially grounded by the FAA earlier this summer after multiple safety violations were discovered after an unannounced inspection. The FAA told the company they were not allowed to perform commercial operations.

At issue is who specifically has jurisdiction over floating helipads in waterways — the Coast Guard, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Federal Aviation Administration, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the county or the city?Throughout the spring and summer, it was common to see Timberview sightseeing helicopters taking off and landing from a barge in the harbor, as well as near the East Pass and along Crab Island.

City Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley told the council that he has been reviewing a case where local governments did have jurisdiction to regulate landing areas on the water. He said the case is a few decades old, but it should still be "good law."

Okaloosa County Commissioners have also been discussing whether or not to amend the land development code to address such situations. Part of a proposed ordinance read "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."

Ultimately the county held two public hearings, before the item was tabled until a later date. There is no firm date set for further talks.

In Destin, Dixon requested the city's draft ordinance be brought back "as soon as possible."

"My concern is safety, of course, and the noise is a big problem," he said.