A Homer flightseeing operator with visions of operating a heliport on the Homer Spit is one step closer to his goal. The Homer City Council narrowly defeated an effort to exclude heliports form a series of new zoning rules.
In front of the council Monday night was a pair of ordinances dealing with what types of businesses and structures are allowed in the city’s marine industrial and commercial zones, in keeping with the 2010 Homer Spit Comprehensive Plan.
The process to come up with the changes began a year ago with several city commissions taking part in its development.
The city Planning Commission original decided against the inclusion of heliports in the new zoning rules, citing concerns that the noise of helicopter operations might have on visitors and businesses, as well as the local bird population.
Public testimony on the matter also centered exclusively on heliports with some folks – like Homer Air owner Dave Rush – opposed.
"I think it would give the current operators a disadvantage," said Rush.
Eric Lee is a pilot and manager of Bald Mountain Air, a floatplane flightseeing operation that takes off from Homer’s Beluga Lake. Lee said it was partly his idea to someday build a heliport out on the Spit.
"Homer wants more money (and) more participation from tourists ... Homer wants cruise ships (and) tax revenue," said Lee. "And to eliminate the possibility of further business activities seems to go against that idea."
It was council member Beau Burgess who moved to strike the planning commission’s wording excluding heliports from the new zoning rules. He claimed responsibility Monday night for starting a ruckus over the issue.
"I feel the role of government should be limited so far as there is a clear public mandate and a discussion for addressing this," said Burgess.
Council members went back and forth on the issue for the better part of an hour. They voted down a motion by David Lewis to allow helicopter take-offs and landings with certain restrictions and also struck down – by a tie vote – another motion to restore the original language that would have banned heliports.
When it came time to vote on the overall ordinance, the absence of Mayor Beth Wythe became a factor. Because Wythe was not there to exercise her right to break a tie vote, a 3 to 3 tie among council members meant that the whole ordinance tanked.
When council member Bryan Zak moved for immediate reconsideration of the vote, the debate intensified, with Burgess pointing out that the council was about to throw out months of work by the planning commission.
After rejecting a motion by council member James Dolma to postpone the matter, the council finally voted 5 to 1 – with Dolma the only holdout – to approve the zoning changes.
It’s important to note that heliports were already allowed on the Homer Spit, but only after their operators applied for and received a conditional use permit from the city. Those same rules are still in effect after the changes were passed Monday.