City: Water, aircraft don’t mix

Matt Algarin
This map shows the areas that have been deemed off limits for aircraft take offs and landings.

With a 5-1 vote during a recent City Council meeting, city leaders have grounded aircraft — at least when it comes to taking off and landing in the city's waterways.

Given the congestion between boats, swimmers, paddleboarders, kayakers, Jet Skis and other watercraft operators, safety was the city's battle cry.

"It's almost wall to wall boat traffic," Councilman Larry Williges said of Crab Island on a busy summer day. "I don't want to see human hamburger in the harbor."

For the past few months city leaders have been contemplating an ordinance that would restrict aircraft from taking off and landing in Destin harbor and in the city's bayous due to safety concerns. Last summer, it was not an uncommon sight to see the Robinson R-22s associated with Timberview Helicopters taking off and landing from a barge that was alternating between the harbor, Crab Island and East Pass. County Commissioners have subsequently banned these types of activities from East Pass and Crab Island, which fall outside city jurisdiction.

Justin Johnson, the owner of the tourism helicopter company, spoke to city leaders during their Feb. 22 City Council meeting.

"My concern was obviously that if this law was passed would I be grandfathered in?" he said.

That idea was quickly shot down by city staff.

As for the ordinance itself, "it's pointing right to helicopters," he told the council, adding that his business has essentially been "forced into a corner."

Michael Percy, who operates a seaplane, told city leaders that Johnson was a direct competitor for his company, but he doesn't agree with the ordinance either.

"If there is a safety issue, then by all means we need to address that," he said.

"I'm quite confident that helicopter noise is what this is about," Percy said. "It looks like in this process, seaplanes, a particular user group, is about to get thrown under the bus when we've been good neighbors and good citizens."

Under the ordinance, seaplanes would also be restricted from being able to taxi on the city's waterways, which would make it nearly impossible for Percy, or any other seaplane pilot, to move his craft from the water.

While the majority of the council was on board with the proposal, Councilman Cyron Marler said this issue shouldn't just be focused on aircraft safety when noise was the bigger issue.

"The issue I see here tonight is that we are after aircraft when we have a bigger fish to fry in the harbor," he said during the Feb. 24 meeting. "We have no safety study, no noise study... we have more questions than answers."

Asking the city to expand the proposed ordinance on first reading to accommodate a larger swath of noise contributors, Marler received a thunderous applause from the crowd.

But when it came time to vote on the proposed ordinance, there were no changes made and the law hit the books.

“The issue is not noise for me either,” said Councilman Jim Bagby. “The issue is, at an airport or an air facility, that’s a controlled environment… I would say you don’t have that controlled environment in the harbor.”