Assembly: Allow gradual growth in flightseeing

Forest Service to decide on final plan in late January

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

The number of helicopters allowed to land on Juneau's icefield would stay the same for the next two years, with increases allowed in 2004, 2005 and 2006, under a proposal favored by the Juneau Assembly.

Assembly members on Thursday weighed in on a U.S. Forest Service draft study of helicopter landing alternatives. A final report is due out in late January and will set the number of helicopters landings on Juneau-area glaciers for the next five years.

The Assembly agreed to a proposal that would hold the number of landings at 19,039 annually in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, 19,991 landings would be allowed, growing to 20,991 in 2005 and 22,041 in 2006.

While 19,039 landings are now authorized, the actual number of landings has hovered between 16,000 to 17,000 in the past three years, Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin said.

The proposal will go to the Forest Service in a letter from Mayor Sally Smith. Assembly member Dale Anderson, who offered the alternative, said it recognizes the needs of Juneau residents and flightseeing operators. It also gives the city time to resolve the satellite heliport issue, he said.

The city is considering a proposal to move flightseeing to satellite heliports at Montana Creek and Dupont, near Thane. The change would reduce noise and flights over neighborhoods, according to a study released in September. Hearings are scheduled Jan. 7 and 17.

Under the Assembly's proposal, landings would be allowed seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Flight paths would stay the same. With Jim Powell absent, the proposal was approved on a 8-0 vote.

"Something is better than nothing at this point," Smith said, asking for a unanimous vote. "This is a step in the right direction."

Amendments offered by Marc Wheeler and Frankie Pillifant would have allowed growth only if mitigation measures were in place.

Smith, who agreed with the amendments, said nothing would compel the city to make changes if increased landings were guaranteed. City-sponsored tourism polls showed about 60 percent of respondents were bothered by helicopter flightseeing noise at some level, she said.

"There is no hammer if there's a guarantee we're going to start to increase," she said.

The amendments failed on a 3-5 vote with support from Wheeler, Pillifant and Smith. Anderson, Don Etheridge, Jeannie Johnson, Randy Wanamaker and Ken Koelsch voted no.

Etheridge said a hammer wasn't needed.

"The public will be louder and longer than they have been if we don't work toward mitigation," he said. "The public's demand is they want something done and that's the direction we're moving to."

As chairman of the Planning and Policy Committee, which handles tourism issues, Anderson said he is committed to making progress on heliports.

"Heliports are a top priority," he said. "It will move forward. We'll make it happen."

The Forest Service draft plan offers six alternatives ranging from a 38 percent reduction in helicopter landings over five years to a 61 percent increase over five years. Griffin asked the Assembly for help as he prepared to make a decision.

"I don't want to say I'm desperate for guidance, but I'm approaching that," he said.

When asked Thursday which option he is leaning toward, Griffin said he won't choose an alternative that would halt landings altogether.

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