LPA votes to ban harbor helicopter operations

Matt Algarin
Timberview Helicopters has been operating from this barge in Destin harbor, as well as from Crab Island and East Pass.

Aircraft and watercraft don’t mix, according to the Local Planning Agency.

During the Jan. 16 meeting, the LPA recommended the City Council approve a proposed ordinance that would bar take-off and landings from Destin waterways after residents offered their opinions.

Nancy Weidenhamer, chairperson of the city's Public Works and Public Safety committee, said her committee has had plenty of discussions about the take-offs and landings recently.

"We decided, unanimously, that we are opposed to any non-watercraft entities in our waterways; mainly our point is from a safety standpoint," she said. "We had many citizens approach us with concerns."

The proposed ordinance would amend the city's land development code to restrict aircraft — including helicopters, seaplanes, hang gliders and others — from operating in the harbor, Joe's Bayou, Marler Bayou and Indian Bayou. Currently the city's ordinances restrict helicopter operations to the Destin Airport, but they have no mechanism to enforce regulations on bodies of water.

City leaders have long cited safety concerns and aim to reduce "potential conflicts" between aircraft operations and water-related commercial and recreational activities in congested waterways. They also would like to address noise concerns.

"On the east side of our building, when you are in the parking lot or out on your balcony, the noise is tremendous; you cannot carry on a conversation or talk on the phone," said David Schuessler, president of East Pass Towers Condominium Association. But, "my main concern is safety," he said.

Timberview Helicopters, a sightseeing helicopter company, had been offering tours from a barge in Destin harbor, at Crab Island and near East Pass. County Commissioners recently passed an ordinance restricting their operations on water bodies as well.

Fellow Holiday Isle resident Guy Tadlock spoke out about the company, which has seen its operation move from the parking lot of Destin Commons to an outparcel along U.S. Hwy. 98 and now to the Destin Airport.

"I don't object to aerial tours at all, I just think there's a more appropriate place for this business to take off and land than Destin harbor," he said. "If you allow something like this, are we opening the door to a plethora of these types of activities?  It would be one thing to deal with one, but I can shudder to imagine that we could have six or seven or whatever."

While the speakers at the meeting were all opposed to the proposed ordinance, LPA member Jim Nissley was a little skeptical about the overarching impacts the ordinance could have.

"Seaplanes have come in and out of here for 90 years; have we had an issue with this before?" he said, garnering a negative response. "I understand helicopters are what brought this to the forefront, I'm just wondering about the other associated things that have been scooped up into this ordinance."

As part of the LPA's information about the proposed ordinance, they were provided a list of businesses that were opposed to the ordinance. The list of about 50 or so signatures features many harbor front businesses, such as Destin's Original Seablaster, Just Chute Me, Destin Watersports, Destin Snorkel, Crab Island Cantina, as well as a majority of HarborWalk Village merchants.

The proposed ordinance was approved by the LPA with a 6-1 vote, Nissley voted against, and will go before the city council at an upcoming meeting.  

Timberview gets OK to operate out of Destin Airport

During Tuesday night's Okaloosa County Commissioners meeting, the county and Timberview Helicopters agreed to a lease for sightseeing operations at Destin Airport. According to the lease agreement, Timberview may offer flights between Feb. 1 and Jan. 31, 2015 from daylight to sunset. In addition to carrying more than $1 million in public liability insurance and no less than $100,000 in property damage insurance, Timberview is required to pay the county 5 percent of gross sales for the "privilege" of operating at the airport.