Airport Commission against helipad

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some 25 people piled into a small room at the Suffolk Executive Airport last night to discuss the request of a local pilot to build a helicopter landing pad across the street.

Roger A. Leonard, of RSR Development Associates, Ltd., requested a conditional use permit to build a helicopter landing pad for both private and commercial use, including helicopter flight training and charter/sight-seeing trips over the Great Dismal Swamp.

The request went before the Suffolk Planning Commission last month, but commissioners tabled it to allow the Airport Commission a chance to weigh in on the project. After a presentation from Leonard and public comment, commission members voted, 4-1, to recommend the planning commission not grant Leonard a permit. They cited safety, noise and economics as their main concerns with the plan.

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“It’s a safety issue,” said Airport Commission Chairman Rick Jackson. “It’s a safety issue. That’s all there is to it.”

Leonard’s property, at 1525 Airport Road, has the aiport to the east, homes to the south and west, and undeveloped land to the north. Leonard said the hours of operation would be from sunrise to sunset, or normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the number of operations per day n meaning takeoffs or landings n would not exceed 10.

“The airport presently does not have the facility to service the needs of the helicopter operation community,” Leonard said.

Existing landing space for helicopters at the airport puts them in conflict with airplanes, he added.

Commissioner George McClellan argued that the airport already services helicopters, providing plenty of landing space on the runways. He also said that the airport is required, as a stipulation of its grant funding (which makes up 95 percent of its operating revenue) to protect its patrons. Having helicopter traffic in an approach zone to a runway and near the entrance road would endanger customers, thereby

putting not only people but funding at risk, he said.

Commissioner Evelyn Jones said allowing Leonard to open a heliport across the street would take away business from the airport. Also, it could lead to “through the fence” operations,

when businesses or individuals that have access to the airport from outside the property, or that utilize airport property to conduct a business but do not rent business space at the airport. Common types of through-the-fence agreements are for freelance flight instruction, aircraft maintenance and aircraft hangars.

While Leonard said he had no plan to request through the fence operations, Jones said she worried he would ask for it in the future. Such an arrangement could make the airport, and in turn the city and its residents, liable should something go wrong. Her example was if an unlicensed mechanic worked on a plane at the airport, and the plane later crashed.

“Mr. Leonard is more than welcome to enter into a franchise and fulfill his dream” by building his helipad at the airport instead.

The phase II of the city’s master capital improvement plan for the airport includes the construction of a helipad, but so far the city has made little to no headway on funding and construction on phase I of the plan, let alone the second part, Leonard said. He has tried, for nearly five years, to build a helipad at the airport, but for reasons unknown, has been blocked, he said. So instead, he purchased land across the street and began the process to build his own facility.

Two citizens who live near the proposed site also spoke in opposition of the plan.

Michael Milteer, 1563 Airport Road, remembered a story his father told him about once seeing a helicopter propeller breaking off and decapitating someone. He feared that could be a similar fate for his livestock should Leonard’s plan be approved.

“It’s a safety issue, as far as I’m concerned.”

Clifton H. Winborne, 1554 Airport Road, said, “I would love to see a facility here, but I was hoping the airport would build one.”

The noise and potential danger from Leonard’s proposed helipad

has him worried to the point where, should it be built, he would consider moving out of his home of 44 years.

“Nobody wants a helicopter pad next to their residence.”

Leonard said that should he get the conditional use permit, he still would have to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Virginia Department of Aviation, an expensive process that would require engineering studies to guarantee his operation would meet all safety, noise and other guidelines.

Because the proposal is compatible with land use policies of the 2026 Comprehensive Plan, city Planning Department staff recommended planning commissioners approve the request as long as both the FAA and the Virginia Department of Aviation review the proposal and determine how, if at all, operation of the heliport would impact the Suffolk Executive Airport at its surroundings.

Leonard’s request will go back to the Planning Commission on Dec. 19; they will either make a recommendation to City Council for approval or denial. Council could consider the requests, with its accompanying recommendations, in January.