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After 3 hours of deliberation, Teton County P&Z recommends approval of heliskiing operation on a 4:3 split vote.

After 3 hours of deliberation, helipad passes P&Z

What happened?

On October 11, 2011, the Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing to consider amending Teton Springs' planned unit development (PUD) to allow a commercial heliskiing operation out of the resort. This commercial heli operation has already been intermittently in existence since at least 2002, however, this was all done without the proper permit approvals from Teton County. Now, Teton Springs seeks legitimacy by applying for a PUD amendment from Teton County.  

Teton Springs’ attorney, Sean Moulton stated that they needed 14  trips per day to run their operation (this was a change from their earlier request of 12 daily trips), but they were willing to limit their season to 40 days between December and April. They were also willing to limit use of the helipad to one vendor – High Mountain Heli (HMH).

Representatives from HMH outlined their history of operating out of Tetons Springs periodically over the last eight years, starting with the first year that Teton Springs was open. Just as was outlined in their application for a commercial helipad, HMH maintained that these commercial heli flights were always at the invitation of the principals of Teton Springs, who consistently told HMH the flights were allowed and that the conflicts with Teton County were resolved. Last year, HMH flew 25 flights out of Teton Springs, and only received one complaint. In closing, High Mountain Heli argued that their helicopters are quieter than would be expected. They produce noise levels akin to a garbage disposal, and burn fuels so efficiently that they create zero emissions.

Click here to learn more about the history of the helipad at Teton Springs.

What did the Teton County planning staff say?

The planning staff recommended that this commercial helipad only be approved subject to the strict conditions outlined in the staff report, including putting this commercial use on a 1-year probationary period to take comment from the neighboring property owners. County planner Curt Moore also highlighted one other major issue that has yet to be resolved: ownership of the helipad itself. Right now, the helipad is owned by one of the four homeowner’s associations (HOAs) in Teton Springs. The attorney for the HOAs submitted a letter to the county stating that there is no collective endorsement or opposition to commercial helipad by the HOAs. Sean Moulton stated that the helipad was transferred to the HOAs in error, and that Teton Springs was willing to work with the HOAs and transfer the ownership of the pad back to the Teton Springs Golf & Casting LLC. County attorney Kathy Spitzer stated that ownership was a critical issue that needed to be resolved prior to this application ever being considered by the Board of County Commissioners.

What was the public comment?

Turn-out was big for this hearing. Roughly 30 people packed into the commissioners' meeting room to listen and/or offer public comment. Several heli-guides, Teton Springs homeowners, and Teton Springs employees spoke in favor of the application. The average year round occupancy of Teton Springs hovers at 21%. The presence of this business last winter at Teton Springs literally helped keep the resort open and keep many people employed. The helipad was an exciting amenity that would draw people to Teton Springs. Three neighbors spoke in opposition, stating that they paid a premium to buy into a quiet golf community, and this business was a total surprise being dropped into their backyards. In particular, one neighbor who lived very close to the helipad site was a service vetran with post traumatic stress disorder who was especially bothered by the presence of helicopters.

In addition to the spoken comments, the county also received over 50 letters (some in support, and some in opposition) to this application over the past few months. However, by the nature of P&Z's deliberation (as outlined below), it did seem that the public comments taken that evening were factored more heavily into the debate than the written comments received in advance of the hearing. Several times during public testimony, the audience grew rowdy, and Chairman Hensel had to quiet them down, warning them that booing or cheering was inappropriate conduct and could be construed as intimidating other members of the public in attendance.

What did VARD say?

We reiterated the history of Teton Springs as the first large-scale resort development in the valley. It was approved under an old county ordinance known as a “Resort, Commercial, and Industrial Planned Unit Development” – or RCI PUD for short. The zoning for this property is R1, a housing zone where uses like a lodge and helipad are prohibited. However, the RCI PUD ordinance allowed a certain small percentage of these disallowed uses so long as they were deemed to be “incidental and necessary” for the RCI development. The prior administrations and planning administrator had determined that a commercial helipad was not incidental and necessary to Teton Springs. Now, to approve this change, P&Z must make a finding that the use of the commercial helipad is incidental and necessary to the PUD. Another concern is how this use will impact the neighborhood as it is built out. Teton Springs is exactly 27% built out (204 of 739 lots) – which is still quite low.

This history of this use also did not escape comment. This is an illegal use that has followed the all-too-common “Act First, Ask Later” trend in Teton County. How can this use be contained to not morph into summer tours of Teton Canyon, given the poor track record here? VARD lobbied P&Z to require both High Mountain Heli and Teton Springs to sign the development agreement so both entities would “be on the hook” for complying with the conditions of approval.

What did P&Z decide to do?

Deliberation lasted almost 3 hours. Bruce Arnold supported the application and its potential for economic development. He also supported the 1-year probationary period. Ryan Colyer opined that while this had been an illegal use over the years, it could be conditioned to fit within the neighborhood, and thus be contained. Matt Eagens, Shawn Hill, and Darryl Johnson expressed concern about the lack of input or any communication from the HOAs endorsing or opposing the helipad. Jennifer Dustin worried that this new use was being unexpectedly put upon the homeowners in Teton Springs. She offered that if Teton Springs could make $13,000 from one weekend of ski flights (this was testimony offered be Teton Springs earlier in the evening), then they can afford to buy a pad in a nearby field that is less crowded and will not impact so many people. Chairman Hensel said he was opposed because the bar was set too low and this business would be a slippery slope to more helicopter-based businesses.

Although over 50 public comment letters were submitted prior to the hearing, part of the deliberation focused on what was perceived as a lack of comments submitted by the HOAs and property owners who would be impacted by the helipad. More specifically, there was a debate between Commissioners Arnold and Hill about whether those property owners who would be impacted by the helipad should have made the effort to attend the hearing that night.  In truth, many of the property owners who would live closest to the helipad did submit comment letters (multiple comment letters in some cases), but they were not present in the valley to attend the hearings. While it may not be fair or equitable, the take-home message from this debate seemed to be: Being physically present at a hearing to offer testimony was more effective than just submitting a written comment letter. 

At the end of deliberation, as P&Z crafted their recommended conditions for approval (ie: hours of operation, flights per day, etc.), an interesting twist transpired. HMH began to take issue with this hourly limitations being recommended by P&Z, stating that because of weather and unpredictable conditions, they needed more flexibility in their operating hours. This seemed to irk P&Z, as Commissioner Colyer argued that their recommended conditions were merely echoing the hours requested by HMH in their own application. Now HMH was changing their tune and requesting other hours of operation instead. In the end, P&Z declined to accept HMH requested changes, and stuck with the hours originally requested by HMH (9:00 – 4:30 with a midday break).

What was the vote?

On an unusual 4:3 split vote, the Planning & Zoning Commission ultimately recommended approval of the Teton Springs planned unit development amendment to allow for a commercial helipad. Bruce Arnold, Ryan Colyer, Darryl Johnson, and Shawn Hill voted in support, and Matt Eagens, Jennifer Dustin, and Dave Hensel voted in opposition.

What happens next?

This application will now go to hearing before then County Commissioners, and this could be as early as this December. However, one of the many requirements imposed by P&Z is that Teton Springs must acquire ownership of the helipad from the HOA before they can go to hearing before the County Commissioners. We will send out a list of P&Z’s recommended conditions before this next hearing so the public can review the proposed trips per day, hours of use, season of use, fuels containment plan, etc. So in other words, we'll keep you posted.

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