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Board of Supervisors rein in helicopter operations in county

Board of Supervisors rein in helicopter operations in county

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County supervisors have decided to keep a lid on further helicopter landings in the Napa Valley.

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday made several minor wording modifications in current policy, bringing it more in line with state regulations.

Supervisor Bill Dodd cast the lone vote against the action, suggesting the board should study the matter further.

Commercial helicopter activity in the Napa Valley is either a blight or a boon, depending on who you ask. More than a dozen residents trekked to the podium at Tuesday's meeting, most of them to speak against allowing helicopters to bring tourists to local wineries and other destinations.

Supervisor Diane Dillon brought the matter to her colleagues after a landing permit application on Diamond Mountain near Calistoga caught the attention of residents there.

There is disagreement over the interpretation of Tuesday's board action. Wayne Lackey of Wine Country Helicopters said, "The board reconfirmed it doesn't have the authority to regulate landings."

Deputy Planning Director Steve Lederer sees it differently. He said by confirming there is no reference to helicopter landings as an allowed use, they are thus barred.

"The board could pass an ordinance prohibiting it," said Lackey, "but they have to go through the process."

The chopper entrepreneur said the county may have authority over landowners, but it is clear the Federal Aviation Administration regulates this activity, "and there is no clear cut legal position."

He vowed to continue with "business as usual."

At the heart of the controversy is the battle over who has control over chopper landings. There is no dispute that the FAA and the state's transportation agency, Caltrans, have jurisdiction over safety issues, among others.

But since helicopter landings are a "land use" issue for the owner of the property where the aircraft would touch down, Lederer said this gives the county the needed control. Landing facilities could be authorized under a use permit, but short of specific language in a permit, Lederer said the lack of reference tacitly says they are not allowed.

Attorney Greg Rodeno, representing Lackey's Wine Country Helicopters, told supervisors that they should make a decision based on evidence. "You've heard a lot of opinion" from helicopter detractors, he said.

Those opinions were strongly expressed.

Most of those speaking against helicopter activity live on Diamond Mountain Road and objected to the potential noise from the chopper landings. "We just want to live beneath peaceful skies," said Marcie Danner.

Businessman John Stewart said he is also concerned about quality of life in Napa Valley, but urged the board to support tourist-related activity which includes helicopters.

Michael Reedy pointed to the fire danger in the remote locations and called the flap a "classic example of where the county should step in."

Author Moira Johnston-Block cited her experience writing on aviation safety. "Let us not even think about giving our children a legacy of a valley full of helicopters," she said.

Winery owner Fred Constant, whose application touched off the controversy, said he had hoped to get permission, not ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Property rights advocate George Bachich urged "common sense and legislative restraint," but board Chairman Mark Luce countered that government must intervene in certain circumstances.

"Helicopters do provide a significant imposition on the quality of life," said Luce. "This valley is appreciated for its serenity and beauty."

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