By Carey Restino
Eric Lee told the Homer City Council on Monday night that he never expected he would create such a stir. The fixed-wing and helicopter pilot thought his business idea was great — offering tourists quick access to a helicopter flight-seeing tour right from the Homer Spit.
“I was pretty excited about it, so I naturally assumed everyone else would be, too,” Lee said.
On the Homer Spit, landing a helicopter is legal, as long as it is done within FAA parameters. And for more than a decade, it’s even been legal to have a heliport — a dedicated area where helicopters can regularly land, be serviced and stored — out there.
Lee’s business plan, however, came to light just as the city was poised to approve a host of changes to the permitted uses in the Marine Commercial District. They were generally intended to align the city code with the reality of what was happening on the Spit. One change made it legal for charter offices and gift shops to rent apartments attached to their businesses, for example, a common practice in the area.
But one thing the city planning department proposed cutting out of the code was helicopter landing pads, bad news for Lee who said setting up operations at the Homer airport was expensive and inconvenient.
Lee said his plan was to offer day-use trips for cruise ship passengers, and encourage people to spend more time in Homer and on the Spit. He spoke up at the previous city council meeting, sparking Councilman Beau Burgess to propose allowing heliports on the Spit through a conditional use permit. Burgess testified at length that any activity shouldn’t be restricted by the city unless it is found to be against the will of the public. Maybe the public opposed such activity, Burgess, said, and that would come out through the conditional use permit process.
But others who testified Monday night didn’t quite see things through the councilman and pilot’s eyes.
George Matz, a local birder, said helicopter activity would interfere with the birds in the area.
“There are routinely eagles and birds flying back and forth and that would be a real hazard,” he said.
Roberta Highland said heliports belonged at the airport.
“In other communities, it really has caused some unhappiness to people who live there,” Highland said. “The same thing will happen here with the noise level. At this point, I am really hoping that you disallow heliports on the Spit.”
Dave Rush, owner of Homer Air, agreed with Highland, but for different reasons.
“This would give the current operators a disadvantage,” Rush testified. “We work throughout the year waiting for the summer to make it through the winter. Where does it stop? Do we get to land airplanes on the Spit?”
Pilot Deb Mosley, however, disagreed. Mosley, who flies both helicopters and fixed wing planes, educated the audience about the myriad of places one can land a plane around Kachemak Bay. She’s seen float planes land in the harbor, fixed wing planes land on beaches all over the bay, and said she doesn’t see any harm in allowing a helicopter pilot to run a business off the Spit. Fixed wing planes that routinely fly over the Spit on their way to Seldovia are far noisier than the helicopter Lee was thinking of using, she said.
Mosley said cruise ship tourists have complained that there weren’t enough things to do in Homer.
“Being able to walk off a boat and get into a helicopter would be a good thing for Homer business,” she said.
The council chewed the idea over Monday, revising and unrevising the ordinance, voting it down in a tie vote and finally reconsidering and approving Burgess’ proposed amended version, which allowed the heliport activity if approved by a conditional use permit.
However, former city councilman Kevin Hogan pointed out that the call for reconsideration might not have been legal because it has to be offered by someone who is on the prevailing side of the vote. Since it was a tie vote, it failed, and the councilman who called for reconsideration had voted in favor. No determination on that technical question was made Monday by city staff, however.
• Held a worksession examining future uses for the land beyond the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon, which currently holds Pier One Theatre, a camping area, and some barge work areas on the east side. Pier One Theatre currently has four years left on its lease with the city, according to a staff report from last August.
Staff reports noted that the city might stand to gain more money from developing the barge work area rather than housing nonprofits. The Kachemak Bay Wooden Boat Society has also lobbied to build a facility on the land, and there have been calls for a kayak pull-out and launching area on the land.
• Heard from Michelle Drew, auditor with Mikunda, Contrell, & Co., who said that the city has received the highest stamp of approval offered by an independent auditing agency.
• Was informed by City Manager Walt Wrede that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell planned to hold a governor’s picnic in Homer on July 25, right before the Concert on the Lawn. Parnell plans to bring his entire cabinet, Wrede said.
• Was warned by Wrede that the community could expect significant delays this summer as construction projects ranging from the Enstar natural gas pipeline to a DOT repaving project that will stretch from Anchor Point all the way to Pioneer Avenue. Add to that the city’s own repaving projects and patience will undoubtedly be necessary when navigating Homer’s streets this summer, he said.
“It’s a lot of economic activity, a lot of jobs, but it’s going to be real inconvenient for folks around town,” Wrede said.
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