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Choppy ride ahead for proposed helicopter-winery tour

Choppy ride ahead for proposed helicopter-winery tour

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Upvalley residents have gathered hundreds of signatures opposing a proposal that could lead to helicopter tours to a winery atop Diamond Mountain.

Constant-Diamond Mountain Winery will ask the Napa County Planning Commission this month for a one-year use permit allowing Napa-based Wine Country Helicopters to fly tourists from the Napa airport to the winery.

This has led to an outcry by some Diamond Mountain residents, who have been collecting petition signatures to fight the proposal in Calistoga and St. Helena this past week.

"People come here for peace and quiet, and if we have helicopters roaming around it would wreck the quiet of the valley," said Calistoga resident Katija Svendsen as she signed a petition in the Cal-Mart parking lot Friday.

Diamond Mountain resident George Caloyannidis said the group had 300 signatures as of Sunday and they hoped to have 1,000 by the time the issue goes before the county planning commission on Feb. 18.

Caloyannidis has also sent a letter to the county outlining the group's objections. He said that granting wineries permission to host commercial flights sets a dangerous precedent.

"Once this permit is granted, others will be granted," he said. "The looming possibility of proliferation of helicopters across the Napa Valley has all kinds of people concerned."

Winery owner Fred Constant said he understood residents' concerns, but believed the issue was being blown out of proportion. "We're not trying to set a precedent," he said. "We are doing a test. This way, everyone has a chance to see if it works or not."

Wayne Lackey, who owns and operates Wine Country Helicopters, has agreed in the proposal to fly at least 1,200 feet above all structures and to limit the flights to no more than two per day or five per week. He said that he envisions "infrequent tours geared for the very sophisticated tourist that comes in for aerial tours of the Napa Valley."

The flight path would follow the Silverado Trail up to Calistoga, head west over the Mayacamas mountains, and approach Diamond Mountain from the Sonoma County side in the northwest, he said.

"We do not ever plan to be a tour company like on the Hawaiian Islands or the Grand Canyon. Those tours sell (individual) seats, we sell private charter tours," Lackey said.

Wine Country Helicopters is currently the only company licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial tours in Napa County. It operates two helicopters but is licensed for up to five. "I don't ever anticipate five or six helicopters flying around the valley," he said. "There really isn't the market for it."

Constant agreed, saying it was a matter of economics: "It definitely is a question of how much demand it would generate. And it wouldn't be cheap." Constant said the price would be set by Wine Country Helicopters and that his only stake would be in wine sales from visitors.

Steve Lederer, deputy planning director for Napa County, told the commission in a staff report that, "… use of helicopters for winery access is not specifically addressed in the Winery Definition Ordinance, County Code, or the General Plan," leaving the decision largely at the commission's discretion.

He suggested that the commission adopt findings as specific as possible to Constant-Diamond Mountain Winery. He said, "approval of the request will set a precedent that other wineries could certainly follow, and as such consideration of the proposal must be done with a long-term view."

Caloyannidis and other residents maintain that commercial helicopter tours would be a violation of current zoning laws. The winery is zoned Agricultural/Watershed which makes provisions for "private airports and helistops" only. They contend that commercial tours are not "private" even if it is a private charter.

"The interpretation as private is not a function of commercial versus one homeowner," explained Lederer, "but the difference between anyone who just plunks down 50 bucks and wants to land versus a private landowner who has a specific agreement with certain operators." He added that ultimately, it is up to the planning commission to decide.

Constant and Lackey commissioned a noise study to gauge the noise impact helicopters would have on Diamond Mountain residents. Constant said that the results showed that noise impacts were within standards set by the county code.

In a letter to the county, Caloyannidis rejected the results of the test, arguing that it was conducted on a day with unusually strong northeasterly winds, mitigating the true noise impact of the aircraft. He pointed out that as the helicopter was not loaded at full passenger capacity, the test was not realistic.

Lackey defended the study, pointing out that he used Sacramento-based Brown-Buntin, a firm that has done work for Napa County in the past.

Residents forwarded the county planning department promotional materials they had collected from Wine Country Helicopters. The materials advertised deluxe packages from $2,000-$3,000 with "customized wine tasting in Napa, Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma Counties."

Lackey confirmed he was in the process of lining up other Napa County destinations in preparation for the summer tourist season. He said he had already landed at Artesa Winery in Carneros and was looking into Catacula Lake Winery in Chiles Valley.

"We don't go into places unannounced, it's not like we have a situation where we can just drop in. Every flight is customized and private," said Lackey. "Because they are temporary helicopter landing sites, there are no regulatory requirements to prevent the landings there. In those situations, if someone has a favorite winery, we try to arrange a visit there."

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