Christian Palmaz dreams of piloting his helicopter to and from the family home at Palmaz Vineyards where eastern Napa Valley meets the steep slopes of Mount George.
But his dream is a nightmare to some of his neighbors.
He wants a county permit to build a helipad on the rural property about three miles east of the city of Napa at 4031 Hagen Road. The county is about to launch an environmental impact report to explore the proposal.
Palmaz stressed the helicopter trips would involve private use only, not taking people to the Palmaz winery. He said trips can be handled in such a way as to not disturb neighbors.
“Any friend who knows me knows I live and breathe aviation,” Palmaz said. “It is an incredible passion.”
Some neighbors worry about the noise. The Vision 2050 coalition of local environmental and neighborhood groups doesn’t want to see a precedent-setting project result in an increasing number of helicopters zipping over bucolic Napa Valley.
“Where will it stop?” Vision 2050 President Dan Mufson said. “If one wealthy person can do it, then everyone can try.”
This past year, Napa County saw disagreements over whether its agricultural atmosphere is threatened by too much winery success and glitz on the ground. In 2016, that dispute could spread to the air.
Palmaz Vineyards is located on 600 acres where Henry Hagen operated a winery in the late 1800s. Julio and Amalia Palmaz founded their winery more than 15 years ago, and their son Christian Palmaz is president.
In an interview, Christian Palmaz talked about trying to alleviate the concerns of neighbors who don’t want a helicopter flying over their homes.
“We are setting the gold standard for what it means to have a helipad on private property for private use in this county,” he said.
The proposal calls for establishing a no-fly zone over the adjacent Olive Hill rural area, using flight paths that concentrate the greatest amount of noise on the Palmaz property and flying 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground when possible.
A twin-engine Bell 429 Global Ranger helicopter or something comparable would be used for flights to and from the helipad. This type of helicopter has advanced technology to reduce noise, a county report said.
The 50-foot-by-50-foot helipad would be paved with asphalt concrete and located on a hillside with terraced vineyards at an elevation of 321 feet. A hangar 29 feet tall at the roof ridge would be built into the hillside.
The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection could use the helipad during emergencies, a county report said.
Christian Palmaz keeps his helicopter at Napa County Airport. If and when the helipad is built at Palmaz Vineyards, he would make an average of four helicopter arrivals and four departures at the family home per week, a county report said.
He had a noise study done, but some neighbors distrusted the results, Christian Palmaz said. He realized a full environmental impact report overseen by the county is needed.
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“The community deserves to know the Palmazs didn’t pencil-whip this project into approval,” he said.
Christian Palmaz sees his project as a precedent-setter for Napa County, but in a good way. If other people want a private helipad, they should have to meet the same, high standards, he said.
Robert Pursell shares a property line with Palmaz Vineyards. His family doesn’t want a helipad for a neighbor.
“Our contention is not only for this site, but for any residential site in Napa County, it’s just not compatible,” Pursell said.
The Palmaz request is the “canary in the coal mine.” County approval could lead to many more applications and more helicopters flying over a valley where the wine industry relies on quiet outdoor entertainment for its livelihood, Pursell said.
In addition, he’s afraid the county’s ability to regulate the helipad operations is preempted by a Federal Aviation Administration that is unwilling to regulate private operators. That leaves a vacuum, he said.
Pursell also cited safety concerns. Highly flammable aviation fuel would have to be trucked through the rural neighborhoods to the Palmaz property, he said.
Mufson said Vision 2050 has collected several hundred signatures from Coombsville area residents who are against the proposed helipad. This petition says that those signing don’t want to sacrifice their right to enjoy their properties in peace and quiet.
“We have chosen to live in one of Napa County’s most quiet residential pockets at the foot of Mount George,” the petition says.
Napa County has had a least 12 applications for helipads and airplane landing strips since 1965, county Planner Dana Ayers said. The county approved six of them – two for St. Helena Hospital – as well as two for limited periods. It denied two requests and two were withdrawn.
One of the higher-profile cases took place in 2005. Developer and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos and his son-in-law, Ronald Berberian, proposed building a helipad on Pritchard Hill near Lake Hennessey. Berberian withdrew the application after neighbors protested.
In 1979, the county Planning Commission approved a helipad for Stags Leap Associates southeast of Yountville. The Board of Supervisors overturned the approval on appeal.
A 2011 real estate advertisement in the Napa Valley Register listed a $24 million home on Spring Mountain near St. Helena that included a private helipad.
Christian Palmaz began meeting with county Airport Advisory Commission and CalFire representatives in December 2013 to discuss helipad designs. This coming year, he could learn if he can join the few that have won helipad approvals from Napa County.
Napa County will hold a project open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 14 at the county administration building, 1195 Third St. People can comment on issues they think should be included in the environmental impact report. They can also submit comments in writing through Jan. 21.
Once the draft environmental impact report is released — Ayers expects this to happen in late winter or early spring — the public will have 45 days to submit comments. The helipad proposal will then be heard by the Planning Commission at public meetings.
Besides Napa County, Christian Palmaz could also have to receive approvals for the helipad project from the FAA, Bay Area Air Quality Management District and state Department of Fish and Wildlife, a county report said.