A revised Homer Spit rezoning ordinance almost died on a 3-3 tie vote at Monday’s Homer City Council meeting after the council got hung up on the issue of allowing heliports as a conditional use. An amendment also died in a 3-3 tie vote to eliminate heliports from the rezoning ordinance.
With the ordinance in limbo, and with Mayor Beth Wythe absent and not able to break the tie, the council on reconsideration passed in a 5-1 vote the ordinance with the heliport conditional use provision included.
Council member James Dolma was the only no vote.
The controversy came about after council member Beau Burgess at the April 22 meeting introduced and had passed an amendment putting heliports back in as a conditional use. The version recommended by the Homer Advisory Planning Commission, Ordinance 13-11, had crossed out heliports as a conditional use — not allowing them at all — in a broad rezoning of the Marine Commercial area around the Homer harbor.
“I apologize for creating the controversy,” said helicopter pilot Eric Lee, who wants to start a helicopter flightseeing operation on the Spit. “I didn’t think there would be one.”
The rezoning also would permit shops and businesses with rooms to legally rent for the night or month those rooms as an accessory use. A second ordinance also redrew zoning maps on the Spit. The ordinances were in response to the Homer Spit Comprehensive Plan, which had recommended many of the changes.
Burgess made his amendment after Lee spoke at the April 22 meeting and said that his idea of a helicopter flightseeing business on the Spit would not be allowed under the proposed rezoning.
In an interview, Lee, a fixed wing and helicopter pilot for Bald Mountain Air, said he wants to start a business, Slingblade Aviation, that would give 30- to 60-minute helicopter tours of Kachemak Bay and the area. He would fill a tourism niche different from float plane tours and bear viewing tours. Maritime Helicopters and Pathfinder Helicopters do commercial and other flights out of the Homer Airport.
“I thought that would be something nice for the community as well,” Lee said. “Something that would support what’s happening on the Spit, which is commercial tourism.”
He would fly a small helicopter like the Robinson R-44, a three-passenger aircraft that weighs 2,500 pounds fully loaded with fuel. It could land off a trailer or a wooden pad. Lee has looked at leasing private lots on the Spit within walking distance of the core area by the harbor, but in the area of the Heritage RV Park near the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon.
“I was looking at spots that would keep me out of everybody’s way,” Lee said.
Federal Aviation Administration rules allow commercial helicopter activity near congested areas as long as the pilot flies prudently and safely. A helicopter could hover and rise straight up to a height that wouldn’t disturb people on the ground before moving forward, Lee said.
Lee said he had gone to the city to talk about filing a conditional use permit.
“That was the day I learned they were going to take off the heliport stuff,” he said of the initial rezoning ordinance.
In a public hearing, most people spoke about the heliport issue, with opinions mostly against the idea.
George Matz, an active birder who coordinates the annual shorebird monitoring program, raised concerns about the hazard to helicopters from seagulls, eagles and other birds on the Spit.
Roberta Highland also spoke against heliports.
“I am really wanting to have heliports remain at the airport where I believe they should be as far as they safest place to have them,” she said.
Another pilot, Debra Mosely, who works for Pathfinder, said she supported Spit heliports. Planes and helicopters can land safely on the Spit and on the beaches, she said. Some floatplanes, such as the Cessna 206, are noisier than helicopters, she noted.
In discussion about the amended ordinance, council member Barbara Howard said she objected to adding heliports back in as a conditional use so late in the process. Public meetings were held and the Homer Advisory Planning Commission had recommended the original version.
“And on a whim, someone comes and speaks here and we disregard,” she said.
Burgess said he took responsibility for the heliport issue. While not supporting the idea itself, Burgess said he did support the larger principle of minimizing limitations on businesses.
“I didn’t see there was a warrant for limiting a broad sweep of activities,” he said.
Council member Francie Roberts said she had researched the use of heliports and noted it also meant storing and servicing helicopters.
“I don’t think that’s what I want to see on the Spit,” she said.
Roberts did say she didn’t have a problem with having a safe place where helicopters would land and take off and gather up tourists.
Council member David Lewis tried to amend the ordinance to allow helicopter landings as long as they were 200 feet from campgrounds and buildings. City Manager Walt Wrede cautioned about getting into specifics.
City Planner Rick Abboud said helicopter landings on private property on the Spit wouldn’t be prohibited by the zoning ordinance. What would be prohibited was a commercial enterprise.
Lewis then asked if he could retract his amendment, but since it was on the table, City Clerk Jo Johnson said the council had to vote. It defeated the amendment. Howard then tried to amend the ordinance line by line, again striking heliport as a conditional use, but then realized there were other sections that would need to be amended.
“This is the problem with doing surgery without anesthetic,” Howard, a former city clerk, said.
That amendment also failed, and Howard introduced an amendment that would revert the ordinance to its original form. That one tied on a 3-3 vote, with Howard, Roberts and council member James Dolma voting yes and Burgess, council member Bryan Zak and Lewis voting no.
A vote on the amended ordinance, 11(a), also tied, with Burgess, Lewis and Dolma voting yes and the others no. On a motion to reconsider by Zak, the council agreed to reconsider and then in a 5-1 vote, with Dolma voting no, passed the version of the ordinance allowing heliports.
Lee said he would proceed with a conditional use permit application, and hoped it would be approved in time for him to start flightseeing tours this summer. The planning department will review the application and make its finding, and the planning commission will consider the application and make its recommendation. A public hearing would be held before the planning commission.
“It’s a sound idea. It’s safe,” Lee said of his business. “Keep an open mind and don’t shut it down before you hear all the pertinent information.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.