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Council may consider new rules for temporary helicopter stops

Thursday, November 8, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo hope to make some quick changes to the city’s aviation regulations after a proposal for a helicopter service stop near a South Austin neighborhood caused a public outcry. There was a lengthy discussion at Tuesday’s work session about two items related to helicopter operations that appear on today’s City Council agenda.


The first is an ordinance that would change the city code relating to temporary helistops and declare an emergency, which would allow it to take effect immediately. Under the city’s charter, emergency items require five affirmative votes from Council.


The second item is a resolution that would initiate a revision to the code and launch a stakeholder process that looks more closely at the city’s temporary helistop approval process. This process has drawn attention over the past few weeks as neighbors in the Barton Hills neighborhood have sharply opposed the application for a helistop at 901 S. MoPac where Fins Up Aviation wants to transport high-dollar customers to the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix race Nov. 16 to Nov. 18.


In short, the controversy centers over the current application process that allows the city aviation director to approve temporary helistops without informing neighbors, which sparked an angry backlash heard at City Hall.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell questioned the usefulness of declaring an emergency, which would put the new ordinance into effect immediately, given that no applications that were currently in process would be subject to it. The emergency ordinance would limit temporary helistop trips to 18, which he also questioned.


“I understand the need to go back and look at the ordinance that governs temporary helistops,” Leffingwell said. “I don’t want to send the signal that, in the meantime, unless things change, you’re not going to be able to hold an F1 next year. If you do it next year, you’re going to have your temporary helistops out in the country somewhere outside the City of Austin.”


Morrison explained that she felt setting an 18-trip limit was a way to guard against releasing a sky-full of helicopters operating under temporary permits.


“I really question the idea that if we’re not going to allow 250 sorties in the middle of our city, then we can’t have F1,” said Morrison.


Morrison cited figures that came from a meeting Monday that there would be 238 trips from the South MoPac location during the three days, or 476 roundtrips total. She was particularly concerned with the potential busy operations on Sunday, the day of the race finals – 106 trips between 7am and 9:15pm.


“The way I calculate it, that’s 212 (roundtrips) trips in 14 hours, which gives us 15 trips per hour, which means one will be taking off or landing every four minutes,” said Morrison.


Aviation Executive Director Jim Smith remained tight-lipped about the number of trips that would be launched from South MoPac.


“They put a high number on their application to allow it to go up to that amount, but what they’ve actually had in sales – we’re still gathering that information,” said Smith. “The bottom line is I don’t know right now how many flights there will be for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.”


Smith said the frequency of trips only factored into his decision to evaluate the noise of the helicopter operations.


“To us, right now, with the regulations we have on the books, the number of operations is relatively immaterial other than to get us the noise contours,” said Smith.


Council Member Mike Martinez also expressed doubt about the need to enact an emergency ordinance, but did allow that time was a factor.


“This is not about F1. This is a policy about allowing operations to exist within our community. And we don’t have a year to make these decisions. I fully agree that we need to come up with a policy that works for this city,” he said, noting that the Circuit of Americas’ track will also host additional events in 2013, including a MotoGP motorcycle race in April and a V8 Supercar race in May. “We’ve got to come up with a policy in a much-shorter time frame than a year from now,” said Martinez


In terms of the longer stakeholder process, Morrison said that she had, and had heard, many concerns about the city’s temporary helipad facility permitting process. She singled out the ability for the aviation code to trump the zoning code in terms of conditional-use requirements and the definition of “community service purpose” as two examples that warranted further study.


“There’s just a whole lot to be hashed out, there’s a whole lot to get clarified,” said Morrison.


On that, Smith agreed.


“We do not have experience dealing with this type of application under a temporary helistop based on our last three or four years. … So the rules and regulations that we have in the aviation code in relation to the land-use code probably need some changes to recognize the larger number of trips in this type of situation,” said Smith. “But absent regulations, we can’t make them up on the spot.”


Last week, a dispute emerged over whether the helicopter service could use the Barton Oaks Plaza garage that it had applied to takeoff and land. Owners of three of the five buildings at commercial development questioned whether the owner of other the two buildings had standing to apply for a permit. If approved, the temporary permit would place a helicopter pad in the midst of businesses that include medical offices and restaurants. A letter from the managing agent for those three buildings — Principal David Alsmeyer of TIG Real Estate Services said that the condominium association was the only body that could make the request.


Smith told Council that he had been advised to continue with the process and obtain a statement from the owner, in writing, that he has the authority to file the application.

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