With massive protester turnout, Carolina Beach shuts down helicopter tours

"I like win-win situations. I look for them I work hard for them. But I don't see that here." - Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox.

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With standing room only, the council heard a three hour procession of public comments. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

CAROLINA BEACH — The Town Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10, was packed with protesters, overflowing into the parking lot where people listened to the proceedings over the loudspeaker. So many vehicles arrived that Carolina Beach Police Chief Chris Spivey had to intervene, preventing tow trucks from clearing the lot. It appeared that Alex Torres, a Carolina Beach resident who has helped lead the protest against allowing helicopter flights in Carolina Beach, had made good on his promise to “pack the place.”

While there were several issues on the agenda, it was clear from the numerous signs – bearing a ‘no helicopter’ logo – that the future of helicopter tourism in Carolina Beach was the main attraction. Mayor Dan Wilcox acknowledged this, asking the crowd “let’s just be respectful, no booing, no clapping, no rude gestures.” Wilcox than altered the agenda proceedings slightly for the sake of time, allowing council staff to make two presentations before public comment was opened.

The first presentation was for the Carolina Beach Planning and Zoning’s recommendation to prohibit helicopter traffic completely. The second presentation was a town code amendment that would allow very limited helicopter use, namely three one-time permits that could be given out on a first-come first-serve basis out over the calendar year.

Before public comment opened, Mayor Wilcox addressed the elephant in the room, asking the crowd, “Does anyone here not know I am in a relationship with Ms. Ward?” Wilcox referred to his romantic relationship with Jessica Ward, owner of High Tide Helicopters. Ward’s company applied for a business license in May of 2016.

However, while Ward was present and taking notes at the meeting, her company had not made a new application. Ward did not make public comment, but Wilcox did say, “This has nothing to do with the applicant,” referring to Ward. “Nothing that’s being done tonight is any different than anything else that comes through here.”

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Jessica Ward attended the meeting, taking notes. Mr. Ward left before the final vote. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Those who made public comment did not always appear to keep Wilcox’s words in mind; town residents speaking both in favor of and against the measure to prohibit helicopter tourism referenced Ward’s business.

Wilcox requested that public speakers keep their comments to three minutes, though he did not interrupt when several speakers digressed from the business at hand to address, among other things, traffic on side-streets and business at the marina. Over the three hours of public comments, Wilcox twice had to caution attendees who applauded speakers weighing in against helicopter business. In the later hours of public comment, the crowd silently waived their ‘no-helicopter’ signs.

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The near-ubiquitous ‘no-helicopter’ sign. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Several speakers spoke positively about the potential for helicopter tourism. Lynne Justice-Denne, who has lived on the island since 1979, told the council that the noise of helicopters would join the sounds of bars and musicians.

“For me,” Justice-Denne said, “it is the sound of life in our robust beach town in the warm months. They are the sounds coming from the very businesses that are being promoted as reasons for tourist[s] to choose Pleasure Island, to rent rooms or vacation homes, dine and visit here. I know these are the sounds that I will only have to endure during the warm months because I live in a tourist town and it will be quiet soon so I do not mind. I know others are enjoying a visit to the place I get to enjoy all year long.”

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Lynne Justice-Denne spoke in favor of helicopter business. She told Port City Daily, “People who are unhappy tend to show up, but it doesn’t always represent everybody. I run a hair salon, and most of my clients are not upset about this.”

Mark Grady, an experienced pilot and traffic reporter for WRAL in Raleigh, spoke about safety of helicopters, hoping to negate what he saw as the earnest but unfounded concerns of earlier speakers.

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Alex Torres addressing town council. Torres, who spearheaded a petition against the helicopter allowances, said his petition had over 300 signatures and that over 175 ‘no-helicopter’ signs had been handed out at the meeting. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Despite these positive remarks, the majority of speakers did speak against helicopters in Carolina Beach, citing reasons including property devaluation, noise pollution, the impact on veterans with PTSD and damage to the wetland ecosystem.

Sgt. Peter Linquist, an Iraq veteran, made an impassioned plea, telling the council that for him and his fellow veterans “the sound of helicopters is the sound of someone dying.” Linquist said, “I’m begging you not to allow this over my house.”

Nan Toppin, of the town’s planning and zoning commission, stepped out of her official role to address the council as a resident. She told the council, “you’re either going to vote to prohibit this with no exceptions or allowances or you’re not.” Toppin added that anything but a vote completely prohibiting helicopter traffic would represent the council ignoring the people’s wishes. “I don’t think the people could have been any more clear,” Toppin said in closing, “I’m here to hold you accountable tonight.”

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Mayor Dan Wilcox makes some brief final remarks before the council voted. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

After a brief recess, the council reconvened to vote. Ward had left the meeting already when Wilcox again acknowledged that he had “taken some heat,” for his relationship with Ward, but reiterated that there was “no conspiracy” behind the council’s vote.

“I like win-win situations. I look for them I work hard for them,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t see that here.”

The council then voted quickly and unanimously to adopt the zoning regulation to prohibit helicopter use in Carolina Beach. After brief comments, the council also voted not to adopt any conditional use permits for helicopters, after agreeing that any kind of emergency of military helicopter use would not require a change in the town code.