Haines residents should see two helicopter-related measures on the ballot this October, but whether they will help resolve the community's debate about helicopter skiing and tour flights is up in the air.
Last week, the Haines Borough Assembly approved an advisory question that will ask all borough voters whether they support managed helicopter skiing in the borough between Feb. 1 and April 30 each year.
The measure comes at the request of the city's Tourism Planning Committee, which has been dealing with the heliskiing issue this summer, according to chairman and city council member Chip Lende.
The tourism planning committee "didn't feel comfortable making a recommendation to the city and the state about helicopters without a good feeling about what voters think. It got more and more complicated the deeper we got into it," Lende said.
Voters outside the city will see another helicopter-related question: Whether to set up a service area to regulate commercial flightseeing. The issue was placed on the ballot by initiative petition and would give a service area board the power to regulate and permit helicopter flightseeing tours and prohibit landings of new helicopter tours outside city boundaries, according to the proposal.
But whether the two votes this fall will resolve the debate in Haines about helicopter tours and heliskiing is unknown.
"Is anything ever resolved in Haines? I don't know," Lende said. "It will be really confusing ... if they both pass. One said 'no industry,' the other said 'managed industry.' If they don't pass, I don't know what will happen then."
Helicopter tourism opponent Nancy Berland, who moved from Dyea to Haines to avoid helicopter tour noise, said the heliskiing ballot question is ambiguous.
"What if you want helicopter tourism, but don't want it managed? What are you voting for?" she said.
If voters allow heliskiing, they might open the doors to larger-scale commercial helicopter tours during the summer, she said.
"I think that in Haines we have something precious with our quality of life that doesn't exist in other communities because of helicopters," she said.
Haines Borough Mayor Jerry Lapp, who is up for re-election and owns the 33 Mile Roadhouse, which has a helicopter landing pad on site, said the heliskiing ballot question will help the community gauge public opinion about the issue.
"Personally, I would like to see heliskiing carried on," he said. "I think what people are seeing is that the economy is pretty much a bust here in Haines. A lot of people see heliskiing as a boost to the economy. It's short-time enterprise - six and half weeks - and it doesn't have a large impact, not like in Juneau," he said.
However, Lapp said he is concerned about language in the service area initiative, fearing lawsuits and funding questions. The measure is being challenged by local Native organizations that are concerned the vote disenfranchises city residents, he said. The measure has been sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.
But Peter Enticknap, sponsor of the helicopter service area initiative, said the city already has planning and zoning powers, which is why the service area covers the borough outside of city limits. And he questions whether government has the ability to enforce limits.
"It would have been much cleaner to say, 'Do you support helicopter tours, including helicopter skiing,' " he said. "It's unfortunate that we could get a muddled vote that could be interpreted several different ways. It presumes that there are enforcement mechanisms and right now there are none."
Shawn McNamara, who co-owns heliskiing operator Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, said his business has agreed to a set season, limits on skier days and boundaries where they can and can't fly.
"In reality, they're creating a 'helicopter no service area.' We support regulation and limits on industry, but not to the extent they're doing it," he said of the initiative petition. "The city and borough can handle it without an ordinance."
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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