Helipad changes okay for takeoff
Despite strong objections by county staff, five commissioners vote to relax rules on how close helicopters can land to homes.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published June 17, 2005
TAMPA - Ignoring warnings that a bid to allow helicopter landing pads hundreds of feet closer to homes could wreak havoc in neighborhoods, Hillsborough commissioners voted 5-2 Thursday night to approve the request, siding with powerful land use attorneys who had spent months lobbying them.
It was a victory for Tony Ferguson, an oil and gas executive grounded for more than a year by county zoning officials and neighbors in an effort to get a pad for his Lake Magadalene Boulevard home.
County staff opposed relaxing standards.
The commission - which has made noise a pet cause lately, squawking about the volume of train whistles and the Ford Amphitheatre - relaxed them, anyway.
Commissioners Kathy Castor, Ken Hagan, Jim Norman, Tom Scott and Mark Sharpe voted to waive requirements that keep helipads at least 500 feet from homes. Under rules approved Thursday, helipads can be closer to homes in certain zoned communities called "planned developments" if the owner agrees to conditions such as buffering nearby homes from the pad, flying at less obtrusive times of the day, and steering clear of homes. And lots must be 3 acres or larger.
But the county's principal planner, Joe Moreda, warned commissioners it would be near impossible to enforce whether a helicopter pilot obeys the flight restrictions and doesn't generate excessive noise.
And Paula Harvey, the county's zoning administrator, told commissioners that if they approved the changes, the county would be hard-pressed to reject a helipad permit as long as the applicant agreed to follow the rules.
"Neighbors would complain, but the county wouldn't be able to deny a pad because they meet these lessened standards," Harvey told the commissioners. "All they'd have to do is say it won't make noise. It would be extremely difficult to deny it, and the burden would shift to us or residents to show that it would make noise."
Commissioners Ronda Storms and Brian Blair said they didn't want to tinker with the existing rules, especially in light of the amphitheater case.
"I can't be a hypocrite," Blair said.
"We worry about car radios being too loud and train horns," Storms said. "How are we going to allow helicopters to come into residential neighborhoods? We are asking for trouble on this."
But commissioners were under pressure from Ferguson. Storms called it "heavy-duty" lobbying. Ferguson created the nonprofit Tampa Bay Helicopter Association last year to press his case. He enlisted some of the biggest power brokers in Tampa: Fowler White attorneys Rhea Law and Andrea Zelman, Holland & Knight attorney Jim Shimberg and planning consultant Michael Horner.
In the end, their arguments that a helicopter is no louder than a sedan or a lawn mower, and safer than most cars, prevailed.
Neither Norman nor Hagan explained their votes.
Sharpe said the 500-foot rule seemed arbitrary, and that other cities such as Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville had less-stringent restrictions.
Scott and Castor said they thought the new rules strengthened the helipad rules. But that contradicted Harvey and Moreda and assistant county attorney Louis Whitehead, who said the new rules weakened safeguards protecting neighborhoods.
The Ferguson neighbors who protested his plan couldn't believe how commissioners voted.
"It's a farce," said Diane Meyer, who lives four houses from Ferguson.
"They went to bat for the helicopter association because they were lobbied by the association," said Carl Rassler, another neighbor. "This is so detrimental to the community. They didn't protect our best interests."
With road congestion worsening, helipads are becoming hot amenities for the super rich who want to avoid rush hour. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 5,637 registered pads for helicopters in the United States in 2004, a 20 percent climb from 1995.
If not for zoning laws and neighborhood opposition, there would be more.
Ferguson's attempt had been frustrated by zoning that didn't allow a pad in his yard. After the meeting, he said he'd consider submitting a new application.
For more than an hour, Ferguson's camp, which included helicopter pilots from Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties, clashed with his neighbors.
Ferguson's allies portrayed the neighbors as country bumpkins.
"I feel like I should be at home watching Green Acres because I feel like I'm in Hooterville," said Don Saunders, a Snell Isle resident and pilot. "Let's be open-minded. Think about the future. Aviation will become a great part of our lives."
The neighbors charged that the pilots were arrogant and a potential threat to national security.
"Don't find in favor of a small group of wealthy, self-serving elite," Meyer said. "I am seriously concerned about the potential for biological warfare and other forms of terrorism if helicopter flight paths are allowed to originate from private, residential areas."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or email@example.com