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About 100 people turned out at a county meeting to argue that a proposal for a private helipad in a rural area should never get off the ground.

Opponents are doing more than criticizing the proposed Palmaz helipad to be built east of Napa at the foot of Mount George. Farella-Park Vineyards wants the Board of Supervisors to change the zoning code to ban private, “personal use” helipads throughout the county.

All of this made for a lively Thursday afternoon in a packed Board of Supervisors chamber, with some people standing and sitting on the floor. Supervisors themselves weren’t present – this was a meeting run by county planning staff.

Christian Palmaz wants to build the helipad at Palmaz Vineyards, 4031 Hagen Road, for family use. He has said he can take steps to deal with noise and other neighborhood concerns, but clearly he has yet to convince everyone.

“We are here to stop this,” a man said loudly to applause. “We don’t want this. Why do we need a helicopter?”

Passion was met with bureaucratic calm. County planning staff and a consultant held the meeting simply to make sure all relevant topics will be addressed in an upcoming environmental impact report, not to make a decision.

“This is not the appropriate place to turn this down, sir,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the man.

Public hearings for the proposed helipad could come later this year before the county Airport Land Use Commission and Planning Commission. The case could go on appeal to the Board of Supervisors.

But opponents were ready Thursday to make their opinions heard. In doing so, they reshaped the meeting.

County planners and the consultant had intended to give an overview of the project and describe what comes next. Then audience members would submit in writing what they think the environmental impact report should cover or give their comments to staff one-on-one.

Instead, the audience turned the meeting into a two-hour-plus question-and-answer session. People wanted interaction, not isolation.

Rural neighbors to Palmaz Vineyards such as Eldon Sellers voiced concerns that included noise from the helicopter and the danger of a crash.

“I don’t want him to come down on my property or on my head,” Sellers said after the meeting.

Jack Hopkins said approving the Palmaz helipad could open the door to many more private helipad requests. It’s bad to set the precedent of allowing people with a lot of money to build whatever they want, he said.

Palmaz has said he will abide by such limitations as a no-fly zone over nearby rural neighborhoods. Opponents voiced skepticism the county can enforce such measures.

Attorney Brian Russell attended the scoping session on behalf of Palmaz.

“We were happy to have people comment and express other ideas and other ways to look at the project,” he said on Friday. “That was the intent of the scoping meeting … we want to make sure everything is addressed in the environmental impact report.”

County law allows “personal use” heliports and airports in rural areas with a county use permit. Farella-Park Vineyards has filed an application with the county proposing to prohibit them.

While the proposed ban would affect proposals for new, private helipads anywhere in the county, Frank Farella clearly had the Palmaz proposal in mind. A Palmaz heliport would result in a helicopter flying over hundreds of homes on its way between the Palmaz property and Napa County Airport, he wrote.

“The resulting noise pollution would be a severe invasion of peace and quiet for our citizens and neighbors, merely to accommodate the excessive luxury of a very few,” he wrote to the county.

Whether the Board of Supervisors would be willing to amend the zoning code to include such a ban remains to be seen. The other question is whether such a ban would preempt the Palmaz application.

“I think the Board has a great deal of discretion on these topics,” Deputy Planning Director John McDowell said. “There are certainly legal questions in play on whether there’s any obligation to continue processing an application that’s already on file.”

But, he said, he believes the Board has the authority to cancel a project already in process that’s no longer consistent with a newly adopted zoning ordinance.

Russell said he doesn’t believe such a ban coming now would legally affect the Palmaz application. But the Board of Supervisors is the decision-maker, he said.

“I don’t see helicopters all over the place,” Russell said. “Helicopters in Napa County are not a problem … I don’t see a lot of motivation to change something that’s not broken.”

The Palmaz environmental impact report will have to include alternate scenarios. County Planner Dana Ayers said one scenario will look at building the helipad at another location on the Palmaz property, about a mile farther northeast up the slope of Mount George.

The draft environmental impact report could be released in spring for public comment. The report is being done on behalf of the county by Ascent Environmental Inc. for $137,811, with Palmaz reimbursing the county for the cost.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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