Sunday, February 25, 2024

Carolina Beach residents voice concerns over potential helicopter tours

A Robinson R44 tour helicopter. Courtesy High Tide Helicopters.
A Robinson R44 tour helicopter. Courtesy High Tide Helicopters.

Residents packed Carolina Beach Town Hall Tuesday night to voice their opinions on the possibility of helicopter tours coming to Pleasure Island.

They heard a presentation by Jessica Ward, owner and operator of High Tide Helicopters, based at the Cape Fear Jetport in Southport. Ward offers helicopter tours in Robinson R44s, which can seat up to three passengers, of Oak Island and Bald Head Island. She came to Carolina Beach last year to offer special tours during Labor Day weekend.

The experience, Ward said, is what prompted her to come before council and propose offering Pleasure Island tours one day a week (either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday only) between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year.

“The response was so overwhelming we were unable to accommodate everyone who wanted to fly,” said Ward, who added about a third of the people she talked to were locals.

The tours started from a vacant lot at 1128 N. Lake Park Blvd., across the street from the town’s municipal complex and next to a retail complex housing Pleasure Island Animal Hospital, Carolina Beach Community Acupuncture and childcare business Island Time Drop-n-Play.

While Ward received positive comments from both the visitors and locals who took her tours last year, other island residents were unhappy with the helicopter business flying into their quiet beach town. In order to mitigate the noise issue, which several people complained about to both public officials as well as on social media sites, Ward said she changed her flight plan so that any future tours, if allowed, would fly only over the central business district, highway business districts and tourist districts.

“This path does not fly over any residential districts,” Ward said, outlining a flight that would go north over Freeman Park, turn around and head south over the intracoastal waterway, over Snow’s Cut Bridge and follow Dow Road back north to the landing zone. Carolina Beach Lake would also be avoided, as it is ringed with residences, as would the harbor area on Myrtle Grove Sound.

“We realize that even if we don’t fly over any residences, there’s still a noise issue,” Ward conceded, saying they would increase their altitude to a minimum of 800 feet from 500 feet. “Any residences that we do fly over will be on the right side of the helicopter, which is quieter due to the location of the blades and exhaust.”

While many acknowledged Ward’s adjustments in an effort to limit impact to residents, they also noted that homeowners aren’t the only ones affected.

“Through her flight path, it appeases residents – I think that what she offers would mitigate my concerns – but I’m not a ‘kick the can down the road’ kind of guy,” said resident Brett Keeler. “Her change in flight plan is going to bother the dentist, the chiropractor, the acupuncturist, the new library, Food Lion, Town Hall … There’s also disruption to wildlife.”

Some of those business owners also spoke up Tuesday night.

“We have an outdoor area where kids play. I am extremely concerned about the noise where kids are playing outside,” said Island Time Drop-n-Play owner Dana Jackson, who says her business caters to children from 12 months to 12 years old.

Jackson asked council to protect her local, homegrown business, saying 90 percent of her clients live on the island.

“These are our families that we have been supporting for almost six years,” Jackson said. “We are about family. That is what we do day in and day out, and [helicopter tours] would absolutely affect our business.”

Jeremy Lindquist, who owns Carolina Beach Community Acupuncture and has also been in that complex for the same length of time, said he had no problem with helicopter tours on the island, but the current landing zone location would negatively affect his business.

“I treat veterans with PTSD, I treat pregnant women, I treat children,” Lindquist said. “A business like this, I think, could be very detrimental to my business in the sense that it’s going to create a completely different atmosphere than what I’ve created.”

Lindquist said his biggest concerns were the noise, dust and wind that his office could experience from the helicopter, in addition to the potential safety hazards involved.

Mark Grady, a recent transplant who works part-time in aviation safety, was one of the few residents who spoke up in support of the plan. He pointed out that aircraft are statistically safer modes of transportation than cars.

“I worry more about every driver that comes over that bridge,” Grady said.

Though no one spoke publicly on this Tuesday night, locals had been ruminating for days on social media about the rumored relationship between Ward and Carolina Beach Mayor Dan Wilcox. One resident even posed the question on the town government’s official Facebook page, to which the account replied, “Town employees are not privy to the personal relationships of the mayor or council members.”

Wilcox addressed the topic himself Tuesday before Ward began her presentation, saying there was a lot of “misinformation” going around and he was disappointed at the “unfair” insinuation of any deals that were not above board.

“This council’s worked hard to be open and transparent and to follow the rules, and we won’t be doing anything less with this proposed use,” Wilcox said. “In response to your concerns over my personal relationship with Jessica, the owner of High Tide Helicopters, it’s just that – a personal relationship.

“I’m not involved in any way, either financially or operationally, with High Tide Helicopters or any related entity,” Wilcox continued. “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.”

Still, the biggest concern of most residents was noise pollution.

“I didn’t move here to be in the backyard of an airport,” said Susanne Thompson, echoing sentiment made by several residents Tuesday night.

“I don’t want them going over my house. I don’t want them going over when I’m in my swimming pool. I don’t want to feel like I’m in a food processor,” said Bob Martin. “I think it’s the wrong move for our beach.”

Ward responded by saying she currently flies over Carolina Beach every day and has received no complaints about noise.

“I fly over the beaches. I fly over Snow’s Cut,” Ward said. “I can only assume if people were upset about it … I would’ve heard about it before now.”

She also said having High Tide operating from the town would benefit other local businesses by drawing more people to the area.

“Helicopter tours are a very unique experience that aren’t available in many places,” said Ward, who would run three tour options from Carolina Beach, with the longest going all the way down to Bald Head Island. “I truly believe the end result of this would be an enhanced experience for Carolina Beach visitors.”

Ward was encouraged to make a presentation to town council to see if the helicopter tours are something they want to pursue, though no official application to the town to start operating has been made. The issue is whether it should be allowed in the first place, as there is no specific town ordinance that allows or prohibits such a business.

According to Town Manager Michael Cramer and Town Attorney Noel Fox, there are two options – allowing the use by right, or allowing it through a zoning ordinance, which would require Ward to apply for a conditional use permit. A public hearing would also be required before a vote could take place.

Cramer said he would have to make the final decision on which route the town would take but wanted Ward to make a presentation to council in public so they could give him feedback. Several residents suggested a conditional use permit would be the best way to go, and council members seemed to agree.

“The main thing is, just like with any business, once we establish that by right, we can have them all up and down the road. We need to be very careful about that,” said Councilman Tom Bridges. “We need to tighten up the ordinance so that it specifically addresses this.”

“We put a lot of credence into protecting existing businesses,” Councilman Steve Shuttleworth said. “If we’re paying for taxes for our tourists, I don’t know that we want to pay with our quality of life. That is just something that people aren’t in support of.”

Mayor Pro-tem LeAnn Pierce agreed with Shuttleworth, citing the large crowd that came to speak on the issue despite the fact there was no official public hearing on it.

“It’s our job on council to represent the people, and I think they showed up tonight,” Pierce said.

Councilman Gary Doetsch, who said he agreed that aircraft are safer than cars, asked Ward to fly a test run of the path, to which she agreed.

“The only way to really tell [how noisy it will be] is to have her fly the flight path she has laid out,” Doetsch said. He also said he was leaning more toward requiring a conditional use permit for the operation.

Cramer said he would take in all the feedback and sit down with staff, including the attorney and zoning manager, before making a decision. It is unclear when that will be, and no time frame was given.

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