City leaders consider proposed ordinance restricting aircraft operations in local waterways

Matt Algarin
This map shows the areas in Destin where aircraft operations would be restricted from operating, based on a proposed ordinance.

Should helicopters be able to take off and land in Destin harbor?

After a unanimous vote Monday night, city leaders answered with a resounding no, although they are still early in the process.

"Our current ordinance only regulates aircraft in the outland areas," City Manager Maryann Ustick said.

For the past few months, city leaders have been considering the adoption of an ordinance that would restrict aircraft operations in the Destin harbor. The proposed ordinance would also apply to other water bodies such as Joe's Bayou, Indian Bayou and Marler Bayou.

This would include helicopters, seaplanes, hang gliders, parasail rides, hot air balloons, and other apparatus.

County commissioners recently made changes to their land development code that would restrict aircraft operations along Crab Island and at East Pass, due to "safety" concerns and congestion.

It was not an uncommon sight during the summer to see the Robinson helicopters from Timberview Helicopters buzzing around the skies of Destin and landing on a floating helipad that alternated sites between Crab Island, East Pass and the harbor.

Since the early days, safety has been the battle cry of residents and city leaders who are opposed to the sightseeing tours along Destin's beaches.

Ed Smith, from the Holiday Isle Improvement Association, told city leaders that the noise generated by the helicopters was a nuisance and the copters posed a safety concern for the owners of Holiday Isle.

While Smith said he relishes the "sound of freedom" military traffic generates, "these sightseeing helicopters are the sound of greed."

"We have an unsightly derelict barge with no legitimate use sitting in the harbor," he told city leaders.

While Destin Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Shane Moody said his organization is pro business, they are opposed to sightseeing tours launching from the harbor.

He said that when Destin compares itself to other areas, such as Charleston, that are tourist destinations and world class locations, "they don't have this happening in their community."

Other speakers such as local developer Claude Perry described the helicopters' noise as "horrendous," saying it's "dangerous to people walking along the boardwalk and boaters in the harbor." Leigh Moore, director of community affairs from the Howard Group, shared the same opinion as others, supporting the proposed ordinance.

When it was his turn to speak to the council, Timberview Helicopter owner Justin Johnson approached the microphone saying that he is probably the "most hated man in the room."

Johnson told the council that he chose to operate on the water after consulting with Okaloosa County officials and representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration.

He also said the barge they are using for their flights has been inspected by the proper agencies and is now considered a heliport and will be officially listed on maps.

"We are not trying to get away with something for nothing," Johnson said. "We have the support of the businesses along the harbor."

Johnson said they currently have about 50 signatures from individuals and business owners along the harbor that support his sightseeing operation. Many of the names were from businesses in HarborWalk Village.

Timberview's attorney David Powell told city leaders that the company should be grandfathered into any new ordinance that is passed, given that they have been operating for about a year now.

"It seems like you are trying to shut down helicopters," he said.

Councilman Tuffy Dixon responded that the city shouldn't grandfather in a business that's never been permitted in the first place.

Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley said the only permit Timberview has had to operate in Destin was a business license issued through an address at HarborWalk Village.

Despite the conversation Monday, the proposed ordinance still has to go before the city's Local Planning Agency for review. It will ultimately come back to the city council for review and two public hearings before it can be implemented.

While ultimately voting for the measure, Councilman Cyron Marler was wary about moving forward.

"We have serious issues on the harbor, not just helicopters," he said, citing cigarette boat races and "music wars" along the boardwalk. "We are going to be facing something we don't want to get into, and that's all I'm going to say."