Prop 5 calls for cut in flightseeing

Landing permits would be held to 1994 level

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000

About campaign coverage

This article is the second in a series this week on propositions that will appear on the Oct. 3 city ballot. Sunday's Empire took a look at a ballot measure on road and ferry access to Juneau.

The Empire will cover other ballot propositions on these days:

Tuesday Renewal of the 3 percent sales tax.

Wednesday Renewal of the 1 percent sales tax.

Thursday A proposed $7.7 million school bond.

Friday A proposal to create a commission to review and possibly amend the city charter.

For Empire coverage of other propositions and candidates in this year's election, go to and click on Hot Links.

Ballot Proposition 5, if passed, would have the city ask the U.S. Forest Service to reduce over a three-year period the number of Juneau Icefield landing permits it issues to the level of 1994.

The measure would keep tourist flights on the ground on Saturdays and between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. Sunday through Friday. And it would ban new heliports unless it can be demonstrated that the total noise resulting from their construction and use would be less than what existed in 1999.

Initiative sponsors have characterized themselves as victims of increasing tourist-flight noise who were left to field an initiative because the Juneau Assembly was unresponsive to their complaints.

Tourist-flight operators counter with a list of technical and procedural improvements they have implemented over the years and which they say have made things less noisy than they were.

The contention has been around a long time.

The assembly convened the Ad Hoc Floatplane and Tour Ship Noise Study Committee in 1988.

Errol Champion an assembly member from 1985 to 1994 remembers that, to start with, barking dogs was the complaint by those testifying before the assembly. Then it was a certain notorious streetsweeper, which received two formal hearings. "Some of that focused people's attention on noise," he said.

Complaints about floatplane noise were settled with an agreement between the assembly and Wings of Alaska that the floatplane operator substitute three-blade propellers for the two-blade variety, and move takeoffs and landings away from the downtown dock to the rock dump area, Champion said.

Though there is far more activity in the Juneau harbor than 10 or 15 years ago, he said, the hours of flight operations seem to be shorter. "I remember flights taking off during assembly meetings," he said.

"It's unfortunate this has had to develop to the point of going on the ballot," Champion said. "With voting, there's still one group that doesn't get its way."

The Ad Hoc Noise Abatement Study Committee came into being in 1992.

"The committee formed because of complaints about a buildup of floatplane noise on the channel close to the Juneau side," said George Imbsen, a citizen member of the committee. "It was very political, with two obvious sides those who were disturbed and those who made the profit."

Some changes were effected at the time: Noisy Cessna 206 floatplanes were traded in for the quieter DeHavilland Otters now in use, and takeoffs and landings were moved further away from the Juneau side and closer to Douglas.

Which is where Imbsen lives.

Despite the changes, Imbsen said, he thinks the committees formed to address noise issues are "all lip service. They create a committee to calm you down."

In 1997, a new panel, the Tourism Advisory Committee, addressed the noise problem by initiating its Voluntary Compliance Program. The committee identified flight noise as the issue that would receive its priority attention and an in-depth analysis in 1999. Earlier this year, amid charges by tour interests on the panel that the Tourism Advisory Committee had become "dysfunctional," the assembly revoked the group's charter after establishing its own committee to look at tourism impacts the Planning and Policy Committee.

"The operators really don't want to do anything," said Ray Preston, a backer of the noise initiative. "And those of us concerned about the noise who talked to the assembly, we ran into a stone wall."

The reason the Peace and Quiet Coalition drew up the initiative is that "the assembly isn't doing anything and isn't about to," he said.

Assembly member Frankie Pillifant, chairwoman of the Planning and Policy Committee, disagrees, citing a city-commissioned, just-completed noise aircraft and ambient noise study and a mediation project that is looking to bring all flight-noise-impacted and producing constituencies to the table together by mid-October.

"One of my frustrations, looking at the volume and disparateness of information, is trying to connect it all," Pillifant said.

And no one seems able to bring it to a conclusion, she said. "I have had a lot of experience with bureaucracies and long-running process, and eventually they come to a conclusion. But here there are no decision or review deadlines, no foundation for what information is acceptable. The (Federal Aviation Administration) doesn't have it; Docks and Harbors doesn't have it; even the PPC doesn't have it."

"But we're validating the concerns and the issues through these studies," Pillifant said. "And I think the outcome will be positive."

In the meantime, flight operators list what they consider to be substantial contributions to noise reduction, including trading in noisy aircraft for larger, quieter ones, limiting hours of operations and, in the case of floatplanes, a reduction of departures by 21.5 percent in the past 10 years.

And they warn passage of Proposition 5 could cut their tour flight hours by as much as 42 percent.

Over each of the last two years, Wings has lost an average $460,000 during the seven months it is without tourist-related revenue, according to Wings chief financial officer John Lucas.

In a financial report, Lucas cited his company's commitment to providing year-round scheduled and chartered service to Southeast communities. But "without the revenues available to us from summer visitors and related activities, we would not consider, nor could we afford to continue, this commitment to Juneau or the surrounding communities," he wrote.

For his part, Preston reflected on the controversy that, like tourism, has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years. "I don't think tourism should be looked at or seen as a religion - and we're not the heretics," he said.

Aircraft outfits take action on noise issue



The 2000 edition of the city's Voluntary Compliance Program showed tour aircraft operators introducing several elements they said reflected an increased commitment to quiet things in Juneau skies.

The annual list of do's and don't's arrived at through negotiation with tour operators and OK'd by the city's now-extinct Tourism Advisory Committee essentially mirrored past lists with respect to ground transportation, hiking, cruise ships and docks and harbor issues.

Last spring, flightseeing operators raised the ante, promising to increase efforts to minimize impacts and use less disturbing routes whenever possible weather and operations constraints permitting.

They also vowed after takeoff not to drift too far from a route that points them directly over a beacon to the northwest of the airport runway. Last year, pilots were allowed more discretion and were directed merely to stay north of the beacon, and some had drifted too far over populated areas.

Operators identified voluntary "low-use zones" and said they would avoid the Perseverance/Granite Creek Basin area, the Peterson Trail/Lake area and the Eagle River/Eagle Glacier Cabin area.

Tour operators also said more time would be spent training pilots to make sure they use routes as designed to minimize impacts.

Bob Engelbrecht, president of Nortstar Trekking, a helicopter flightseeing company, said Friday the operators' goals had been met.

With regard to route management, "we did a couple of things," he said. "We made route changes down the channel and raised the altitude by 500 feet primarily by Wings to and from the Taku area, and by Era Helicopters over the Douglas Island side to Sheep Creek."

As to the direct route over the beacon near the airport, "there were times (this summer) when we had to deviate because of traffic conflicts," he said. "But having the precise point was an improvement."

Operators did manage to avoid the "low-use" zones they identified in the guideline, Engelbrecht said. In addition, they moved routes away from the Windfall Lake cabin area, which had for years been a specific crossing point. The cabin, he added, was built with the help of a helicopter operator.

The promise to increase pilot route training was kept, he said. "There was clearly a heightened effort."

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