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Council adopts emergency ordinance after two helistop permits OK’d

Friday, November 9, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Closing an unforeseen loophole, City Council on Thursday night passed an emergency ordinance designed to prevent temporary helistops like the ones approved by the Aviation Department just hours earlier.


Council voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell voting against, declaring an emergency and putting restrictions in place that will limit temporary helistops to 18 trips.


Only hours earlier, the city’s Aviation Department approved two temporary helistop permits for operations during the F1 U.S. Grand Prix from Nov. 16 through Nov. 18. One permit is for a helistop at 901 South MoPac, the other at 300 South Congress Avenue. Neighbors were shocked to find that they were not notified about the 901 South MoPac location, which is quite close to the Barton Hills neighborhood. Residents in recent weeks fired up City Hall with their concerns over noise, safety and lack of notification.


Council responded on Thursday by also passing a resolution to begin a stakeholder process that will take a lengthier look at how the city approves helistops.


“We have never had a helistop approved that has been more than 18 trips,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who pointed out that the emergency measure would not impact how temporary helistops had been used up until that point.


The Aviation Department said it approved the permits with hours reduced from what the applicants had requested. Instead of the proposed operating hours of 6:30am to 10pm, flights will only take place between 8am and 6pm. Aviation Department spokesman Jim Halbrook said the practical effect was a 57 percent reduction in Sunday Nov. 18 operations – to 46 operations.


Though flights will take place over the entire weekend, Halbrook did not have the number of operations for the other two days.


The emergency resolution will prevent any other high-intensity use temporary helistops in the future.


“I don’t think it’s about Formula One. We’re just an ever-changing city. Yeah, the event brought that to light,” said Melissa Hawthorne, president of the Barton Hills Association. “I don’t think anyone foresaw this (code) being used in this way.”


Council Member Laura Morrison, who sponsored the resolution and ordinance, warned of a “tipping point” that could change Austin from a city that embraced tourism to one that hated tourists, like New York, if the impact felt by residents became too great.


Some people, like local activist Paul Robbins, may have already tipped.


“This exemplifies the arrogance of the people who are planning Formula One. I know this sounds kind of melodramatic, but it’s like we’ve become (Formula 1 boss) Bernie Eccelstone’s colony. If we want his money, then we have to take the collective abuse and indignation that accompanies it,” said Robbins. “Formula One doesn’t care about the people who live here.”


Mark Gentle, Barton Hills Neighborhood Association vice president, was concerned about the complete lack of public participation in the process. He said that it was harder to adopt a puppy than get a temporary helistop in Austin.


People wishing to operate busy temporary helistops in the future will find that this is no longer the case. Instead, anything over the 18 trips will require a conditional-use permit, such as those required for a cocktail lounge.


Council Member Bill Spelman said that he initially wondered why the emergency ordinance was preempting the stakeholder process, but changed his mind when he realized this issue could come up more quickly than the stakeholder process could move around one of Austin’s other events.


“I’m surprised to find that I am sufficiently concerned about this particular opportunity that I am willing to require that people who want to do this in the future go through this arduous and rather uncertain process,” said Spelman, speaking about the conditional-use permitting process.


Leffingwell cast the lone vote of opposition. He voted in favor of the resolution to begin a stakeholder process, but against the emergency ordinance.


“To pass this now shows an element of panic and thoughtlessness,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who warned that the emergency ordinance would “send a very bad message to the people of the world that were watching Austin.”


In a news release, the Aviation Department said it will monitor and evaluate the temporary helistops during the F1 race weekend, including installing noise-monitoring equipment near the MoPac site to “provide a better understanding of the impact to the surrounding areas.”


The two companies receiving the temporary helipad permits are Charlie Bravo for the South Congress Avenue location and Fins Up Aviation for the MoPac site. Mark Richard, owner of McRae Aviation Services, said his Austin charter aviation firm will operate the flights from the MoPac location using two Bell helicopters.

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