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VARD comment letter regarding the application for permanent commercial use of the Teton Springs helipad.

Decision Makers: Teton County Board of County Commissioners

Topic: VARD comment letter regarding the application for permanent commercial use of the Teton Springs helipad.

September 4, 2012

Teton County Board of County Commissioners

150 Courthouse Drive

Driggs, Idaho 83422

RE: Teton Springs Application for Permanent Helipad Approval

Dear Commissioners:

There are several obvious economic benefits to permitting High Mountain Heli (HMH) to offer heliskiing tours in Teton Valley.  From many perspectives, a 4-season resort may be one of the best locations to host this type of high-impact commercial/tourist use.  That said, Teton Springs is not purely a resort community. It also incudes a growing number of year-round residents who purchased homes in what they expected to be a quiet, residential planned community.  In addition, many others own vacant lots in Teton Springs who see their ownership as an investment for resale.  Thus, the economic interests and impacts of all of these property owners is very different.  All of these diverse and often divergent property interests must be considered here.  In addition, there are several lingering issues in the record that must also be resolved.   

Conflicting Testimony Regarding Noise and Pollution.

At the December 15, 2012 public hearing to consider a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) for this helipad, representatives from HMH stated their helicopters produce zero emissions and do not create noise levels above 85 decibels.[1]  This testimony heavily factored into the ultimate approval of the TUP.  This winter however, several residents of Teton Springs who live in close proximity to the helipad filed complaints to Teton County regarding the noise and pollution impacts from the helicopters.[2] 

To date, there are 10 homes and 32 vacant residential lots within 1,000 feet of the newly proposed helipad site East of the Lodge.  There are two homes within 500 feet of the helipad site.[3]  Assuming that helicopters are in fact noisy and generate lingering fumes as alleged by those who live near the helipad, this conflict between year-round residents seeking peace and quite versus a commercial business pursuing 560 flights a season (up to 14 flights per day) is not likely to soften over time.  As homes continue to be built in Teton Springs and more people become permanent residents of this community, this conflict between residents who are living with the impacts on a daily basis and the commercial interests of the resort are likely to intensify.  This speaks to the appropriateness of this location and whether it is at all possible to mitigate the adverse impacts of this commercial use.

Conflicting Testimony Regarding Helicopters Flying off Course

Teton County’s Staff Report states that HMH deviated off course on only February 3, 2012, and that it was corrected immediately.[4]  However, the record reveals that at least three residents of Teton Springs filed complaints this winter reporting that the helicopters deviated from the promised flight path on at least three separate occasions, flying in close proximity to homes.[5]  This is in addition to the repeated complaints regarding noise and pollution impacts.

The TUP vests the Teton County Planning Administrator with the authority to revoke or modify the TUP for (1) any misrepresentations in the original application, (2) for violation of one or more of the terms, conditions, or uses upon which the permit was granted, or  (3) if the permit becomes detrimental to the public health, safety, or welfare and such was not the condition at the time of approval.[6]  The record indicates that the public has repeatedly reported violations of flight patterns, as well as noise and pollution impacts far exceeding the quiet pollution free helicopters that were originally represented to the county.  However staff has declined to take action in response to these complaints during this past season.

Impacts to the Bald Eagle Nest Which Has Now Failed 3 Years in A Row

There is a bald eagle nest Southwest of the helipad site.  Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) reports that although the nest has been successful in years past, the eaglets in this nest died for the 3rd season in row this winter.  Disturbances can scare adult eagles off the nest, causing the young eaglets to perish from cold and exposure due to lack of feather development.[7]   The record indicates that IDFG takes this issue seriously and will soon submit comments regarding impacts to this nest.[8] 

The Planning Staff’s report concludes: The most critical egg incubation period does not occur from Christmas to March 31, which is the defined heli-ski period.[9]  There is no agency comment in the record to support this conclusion.  To the contrary, there is commentary in the record from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) that the nest failed in both 2010 and 2011, the eagles appear to be habituated to human impacts, but they would be monitored this following winter.[10]  HMH has reported that they did operate winter flights in both 2010 and 2011, which are the two prior seasons when the nest failed.[11]  In addition, there is public comment in the record documenting flights over the eagle’s nest as well as observations by the public on how the flights caused the adult eagles to leave the nest, resting on the power lines instead.[12]   It appears that the the staff’s conclusion is unsupported by the record.

If the Development Agreement is Amended, There is No Further Review

One last issue to carefully consider here is that last season was a very slow year. HMH flew 138 flights, which was 25% of the total number of flights allowed under the TUP that is now up for permanent approval.  Teton Springs is a residential community that is only 29% built out right now.[13] 

Even with such a low housing occupancy, there were numerous complaints from residents citing adverse impacts from one season of helicopter flights – even when only 25% of the allowed flights were used last year.  As stated earlier, there are 10 homes within 1,000 feet of the newly proposed helipad site and 32 more vacant lots.  If permanent approval is granted for 560 flights a year, there will be no additional review, even if the cumulative impacts from those flights become unmanageable for the growing number of residents moving into Teton Springs.

Although you may receive pressure to approve this permit well in advance of the 2012 heli-skiing season, it is critical that you do your due diligence, particularly with such a potentially high-impact, dangerous, and permanent use. Thank you once again for all of your hard work in the service of our community.

Sincerely

 

Anna Trentadue

                           VARD Staff Attorney / Program Director


[1] Teton County Board of County Commissioner minutes pages 2-3 (December 15, 2012).

[2] See, Letter from Diane Murphy citing noise and fume impacts (February 10, 2012); Letter from Pamela Colby citing noise and fume impacts (March 9, 2012); Letter from Chuck Iossi citing noise and fume impacts (March 9, 2012).

[3] Teton County GIS mapping program.

[4] Teton County Staff Report, pages 4-5. 

[5] See, Letter from Pamela Colby reporting repeated flights over homes to the Southwest of the helipad (February 3, 2012); Letter from Diane Murphy reporting flights to the Southwest of the helipad over the bald eagle nest (February 18, 2012); Letter from Diane Murphy reporting how flights over the bald eagle nest to the Southwest of the helipad altered the behavior of the eagles, causing them to leave the nest unattended (September 3, 20120); Letter from Chuck Iossi including March 10, 2012 video footage showing an HMH helicopter deviating from the flight path (September 3, 2012).

[6] See, Teton Springs Temporary Use Permit, page 2 (December 11, 2012 (sic)).

[7] Phone and email interviews with IDFG staff (August 29-30, 2012).

[8] See, Letter from Idaho Fish & Game (August 27, 2012).

[9] Teton County Staff Report, page 6-7.

[10] See U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service letter to Teton County, April 3, 2012.

[11] See, HMH statement to Teto County Board of County Commissioners (August 26, 2011): HMH was first contacted by the principle owners and GM of Teton Springs in 2002 regarding operations from their heliport. We began operating there on a limited basis beginning early that winter of 02-03. In January of 2004, following a complaint by a Victor resident, we learned that P&Z had some issues with the use of the heliport. That summer we were assured again by the principles of Teton Springs that everything had been worked out with the county and we were invited to continue use of the heiport. Operations continued each winter on a limited basis until, following another complaint by the same resident; (sic) the issue resurfaced again last winter.

[12] Letter from Diane Murphy reporting flights to the Southwest of the helipad over the bald eagle nest (February 18, 2012); Letter from Chuck Iossi including photo of an adult bald eagle resting on the power lines on March 3,2012 which is a date showing flight activity from HMH (March 3, 2012); Letter from Diane Murphy reporting how flights over the bald eagle nest to the Southwest of the helipad altered the behavior of the eagles, causing them to leave the next unattended (September 3, 20120).

[13] Of the 739 lots platted in Teton Springs, 212 have homes constructed on them. This is 29% build out. Source: Teton County Planning Department Subdivision Spreadsheet (August 2012).

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