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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Morrison, neighborhood oppose plan for F1 helicopter service
Monday, October 29, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
Members of the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association and Council Member Laura Morrison are up in arms about a proposed helicopter landing pad to serve fans going to next month’s Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix.
A proposal to construct the temporary helicopter pad – officially classified as a “temporary helistop” – has been proposed for 901 S. MoPac, which would put a helicopter landing zone on the top of a building on the east side of MoPac adjacent to the Texas Land and Cattle Co. restaurant and Zilker Park.
“It really brings up the bigger issue of how much impact is the city expecting the residents of this town to absorb in a situation like this,” Morrison said. “I have to believe that being less than a 1,000 feet from a residential neighborhood there is going to be some pretty significant impact.”
The Barton Hills Neighborhood Association voted to oppose the project, and has prepared a resolution for City Council. But the decision to categorize the pads as “temporary helistops” means they are not a conditional use, and bypass the public input process, so it is unclear what effect this protest will have.
Typically helicopter facilities are considered a conditional use, and thus the city requires approval from the Planning Department. However, a temporary helistop is a helicopter facility that is temporarily approved for helicopter takeoffs and landings “for an advertising, promotional, educational, or community service purpose, or a constructional project,” according to city code.
It is unclear which criteria the helistop, which will be used to shuttle F1 fans to and from the race track, will fulfill.
“I just can’t imagine which of those constraints they think that it meets,” Morrison said. “It’s not for advertising. It’s not for promotion. It’s not for education. I sure hope they don’t suggest that that’s a community service, because if that’s a community service, I can’t imagine what’s not.”
Aviation Department spokesman Jason Zielinski said a company that is interested in a temporary helicopter landing area is required to submit an application to the city’s Aviation Department. Then the application goes to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the city’s Public Safety and Public Transportation departments, and the land holder for review. For their part, the FAA must also submit a “letter of no objection” for approval of the helistop.
After this process, the ultimate decision comes down to the Aviation Executive Director, Jim Smith, who declined repeated requests for an interview.
Officials with the Aviation Department declined to provide the name of the company that applied for the helistop. However, the Austin American-Statesman reported on Saturday it was McRae Aviation Services, an aircraft and helicopter charter operator located at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Zielinski, told In Fact Daily, “We are not the spokesmen on why or why not a site is approved or declined.”
So far, no temporary helistop permits have been issued within the city, although another application being considered is at the Embassy Suites at 300 South Congress. Two other permits – one at the Littlefield Building and one at Zilker Park – have already been rejected.
The applications were brought up at an Oct. 18 City Council briefing, where Morrison and Council Member Mike Martinez requested information about the proposed flight plans. This information has yet to be produced. Morrison is also waiting on answers about why the stops do not require a conditional-use permit and information on hours of operation and compliance with FAA noise-compatibility guidelines. She was still waiting late Friday afternoon.
Her own research into the code has cleared up at least one thing. The code allows temporary helistops for either the length of an event, or 180 days, whichever is shorter, she said. While it is reasonable to assume that these permits will be for the duration of the Formula 1 weekend, Morrison was alarmed that the aviation director could approve helicopter stops for six months in other cases without a conditional-use permit.
“I think it’s entirely inappropriate, and I think that whatever comes out of this, we need to get our code clarified. Our aviation director should not be able to be approving and authorizing these … for up to 180 days,” Morrison said.
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