Carolina Beach to consider contentious zoning ordinance to allow helicopter tours

"We're going to pack that place, standing room only, so they won't be able to ignore us."

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High Tide Helicopter tour. (Photo High Tide Helicopters)

CAROLINA BEACH — The Town Council of Carolina Beach will meet next week to discuss a new zoning ordinance that would allow helicopter tours to operate inside the city limits. The meeting is expected to be crowded and, potentially, heated.

The controversy is not about the zoning ordinance per se, but dates back instead to a presentation made by Jessica Ward, owner and chief pilot for High Tide Helicopters of Oak Island, N.C. The presentation, delivered in May of last year, was met with protests that helicopter tours would be a noise nuisance to the residential community. More upsetting, to some residents, was the fact that Ward was in a romantic relationship with Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox.

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Mayor Dan Wilcox (photo courtesy of Town of Carolina Beach).

Wilcox said at the time: “I’m not involved in any way, either financially or operationally, with High Tide Helicopters or any related entity. We don’t share bank accounts, investments or a home. My financial status doesn’t change one penny whether the helicopters originate out of Carolina Beach or not. The bottom line is, I’m not in the helicopter business, and I don’t want to be.”

Wilcox was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

Despite Wilcox’s statements, some residents continue to argue that the upcoming meeting is the result of the mayor’s relationship with Ward. They include Alex Torres, who said he is trying to balance sensitivity with pragmatism.

“I have no desire to drag the mayor through the mud,” Torres said. “But the reason this issue is back before town hall, the reason it’s happening is that the mayor is dating the owner.”

Torres said that he fears Ward has gained sway over Carolina Beach council members through her association with former Town Attorney Steve Coggins. High Tide Helicopters filed for a use permit in early September 2016; the application was filed by Coggins. Torres said he believes that “[Ward] has these back channel influences now. The council was completely against this in May, and now they’re split down the middle. LeAnn Pierce is the only one undecided.”

Torres’ petition against the rezoning does not cite High Tide Helicopters by name, but in discussing the meeting, he focused exclusively on Ward’s company.

“They’ve proven that they’re not responsible,” he said.

Torres pointed to an ill-fated publicity stunt in August of 2016, where the company behind the new APP Likeli dropped paper money and promotional materials into the ocean water off Wrightsville beach from a helicopter piloted by Ward. (Likeli afterwards took full responsibility for the incident and George Taylor III, founder and chief executive officer, was charged by the Wrightsville Police Department with a dangerous flying misdemeanor. Ward was cleared of any wrongdoing by the FAA).

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Jessica Ward (photo courtesy High Tide Helicopters).

Ward said she was aware that some people took the issue personally, but added, “I’m not making a proposal next week. This isn’t about me, it isn’t about High Tide Helicopters.”

Carolina Beach Mayor Pro Tem LeAnn Pierce acknowledged the relationship between Ward and Wilcox, but said it had nothing to do with the zoning meeting.

“I can’t comment on their relationship beyond that it’s personal. The reason this on the table is because, at the end of the last meeting, we hadn’t specifically allowed or disallowed the use of helicopters,” Pierce said.  “But you know, it’s not just High Tide. I heard from the Chamber of Commerce that there are other companies interested, at least one that’s considering applying for a permit. So it’s more about the business, if there’s an opportunity to do business, companies are going to pursue it. It’s just about whether it’s good for the town.”

Torres said he hopes to bring as many dissenting voices as possible to the meeting, scheduled for Jan. 10.

“We’re going to pack that place, standing room only, so they won’t be able to ignore us,” he said.

Pierce said resident turnout will have an impact on the final decision.

pierce“At least, it does to me,” she said. “I was elected to represent the people of Carolina Beach. If I don’t think this is going to be good for the town, it’s not going to work for me. That said, I can’t say there won’t be just as many people there in favor of it. I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to make a decision until I’ve seen the presentation, hear the pros and cons.”

Update: Councilman Tom Bridges reached out to Port City Daily by phone, saying, “I’m leaning against it. Obviously I voted against it last time. We’ve received a lot of emails from residents against having helicopters in Carolina Beach. But, to be fair, there have also been some in favor of it. We received a cluster right before Christmas.

“So, as an elected official, I’ve got to listen to what the people have to say. I can’t make a final decision until I hear everyone out next week.” Councilman Gary Doetsch said in an email, “my personal opinion is neutral at this point and I will listen to citizens and represent the wishes of the majority.”