Forest Service backs off glacier heliport

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2001

A proposal to build a heliport on federal land near the Mendenhall Glacier has proved so unpopular among some valley residents that the U.S. Forest Service has shelved the idea.

But Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell, chairman of the Planning and Policy Committee, says he hasn't given up on running some tests this summer from prospective satellite heliport sites.

District Ranger Pete Griffin said the prospect of a heliport in the Dredge Lakes area has provoked mostly negative comments since he first floated the concept last month, and unless he sees evidence of broad community support, he will not advance it.

"If the community says that's the place to do it, we'll sure consider that, but that's not been the case to this point," Griffin said. "I'm not going to take it any further."

The same group that fielded an unsuccessful ballot initiative last fall to restrict flightseeing tours is pushing the Dredge Lakes heliport. Peace and Quiet Coalition member Kim Metcalfe-Helmar said a helicopter terminal in the 600-acre Dredge Lakes area would remove flightseeing noise from residential neighborhoods and offer aircraft quick-and-easy access to the icefield.

Under her scenario, the heliport would be more than a mile from nearby homes, although she hasn't identified a precise location. Customers would drive to the site and aircraft would stay there all summer, instead of flying back and forth over the valley and other areas.

"I like it because it's not directly located over a neighborhood," said Metcalfe-Helmar.

But valley resident Richard Gordon said that would just transfer the noise problem to the valley, adding, "It's going to be a lot of noise to a lot of people at their homes."

Gordon, an avid birder, is especially concerned about arctic terns that nest near Mendenhall Lake.

"Over time, I think it's almost certain the noise and activity would one way or another destroy the capability of the terns to nest there," said Gordon, who frequently hikes the area and lives near Back Loop Road.

Valley resident Sara Boesser said even if the terminal was built away from Back Loop homes toward the visitors center, the canyon-like geography of the area would amplify noise from departures and landings, inflicting a steady roar on residents.

"I believe the continual ground-level take-offs and landings would be as bad or worse than far-overhead droning," wrote Boesser in a recent letter to the Empire.

However, Metcalfe-Helmar said no one really knows whether a heliport near the glacier would affect residents negatively because no one has tested the potential noise level. She wants the city to measure noise from a group of four or five helicopters in the Dredge Lakes area.

She and another tour industry watchdog, Chip Thoma, told the Planning and Policy Committee on Monday they are disappointed by the lack of progress on the noise issue.

"Absolutely nothing new is going to take place this summer," said Metcalfe-Helmar. "I can't tell you how disappointed I am."

Thoma called for a series of public hearings in the evenings at the glacier visitors center.

A $98,000 study on possible heliport sites isn't being designed to include actual test flights, and won't be completed until September, near the end of the season, City Manager Dave Palmer told the committee.

"For another $100,000, we're going to get modeling" of potential noise impacts, Chairman Powell said. "That's a lot of money for more modeling. It's frustrating and disappointing."

Powell said he hasn't given up, though. He said he'll still investigate whether a list of potential heliport sites submitted by operators can be narrowed to the most promising ones, and then whether private landowners and helicopter operators can agree on test flights.

Also, Bob Engelbrecht of NorthStar Trekking told the group the cost projection for a quiet-technology helicopter is $1.7 million or higher, more than had been thought. With insurance premiums and property taxes, and only a five-month season to earn income, that could put him out of business, he said.

To make the helicopter purchases more likely to happen, he suggested a property-tax break from the city, relaxed expectations for flight times and frequency for quiet helicopters, and maybe establishment of a city revolving loan fund to buy the craft.

In any case, the new quiet helicopters won't be available before 2003, Engelbrecht said.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com. Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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