Thursday, June 4, 2020

Eleven makes its case for year-round helicopter landing area above Irwin

Packed house for county Planning Commission’s public hearing

By Kristy Acuff

Citing “convenience for clients” as a driving reason behind its proposed helicopter landing area above Lake Irwin, Eleven executives made their case before the county Planning Commission Friday at a public hearing. That did not seem to sway many in attendance who oppose the idea.

“Six of our clients approached Eleven with the request to bring helicopters directly to our site above Lake Irwin, “ says Jake Jones, global operations director for Eleven. When asked what prevented those clients from using the Gunnison regional airport instead, Jones replied, “It is less appealing for them to arrive at the airport and sit in a car and then a snow cat to access our product.”

The Gunnison County Planning Commission will have to approve such a change to the Land Use Resolution (LUR) before regular helicopter flights could begin at the Eleven property above Lake Irwin. According to the LUR, “Proposed land use changes shall be designed and maintained in a manner that will not adversely affect the character and tranquility of nearby residential or public use areas and … shall not subject other uses to undue noise, dust … aircraft flight patterns or other nuisances.”

Matt Reed, public lands director for High Country Conservation Advocates, emphasized that the Planning Commission’s decision should be an easy one, given the language of the LUR. “Your own document precludes this kind of development. Helicopter flights less than two miles from the Ragged Wilderness area is the definition of ‘undue’ noise and such flights would subject both the public and the wildlife to ‘undue’ noise prohibited by the LUR,” explained Reed.

“I feel I have a good understanding of the LUR and section 13 to which you are referring,” responded planning commissioner Kent Fulton. “Believe me, I keep that in the back of my head all the time when I am considering these applications.”

Attorney David Leinsdorf, representing Eleven, disagreed with Reed’s interpretation of the LUR, stating that the LUR has some “flexibility.”

“There is no prohibition in the LUR against having a helicopter land on private property. Eleven could have a helicopter land up there right now and it would not go against the LUR. The LUR does not set hard and fast rules against this,” said Leinsdorf.

Much of the ensuing discussion focused on the noise, the flight patterns and questions about frequency of flights. In its application, Eleven estimates four monthly flights but did not set a cap. The application also states that helicopters will not fly directly over the Irwin townsite and will maintain the FAA-mandated 2,000-foot altitude if they fly above adjacent wilderness areas.

“Will the helicopter drop off the clients and then sit at the landing area waiting for them, or will the helicopter take off and then return later in the day to pick them up?” asked Fulton. “And would that count as one or two flights?”

“That depends on the way the clients engage the helicopter,” responded Jones. “If the helicopter leaves and then returns, that would count as two flights.”

When discussing the noise impact, Planning Commission members who visited the Irwin site noted that the area is already noisy due to the snowmobile use along Kebler Pass.

“I was amazed at the noise level up there already,” said Planning Commission member Vince Rogalski. “Snowmobiles make a tremendous amount of noise and the site is confined and in a little bowl area so the noise reverberates.”

Jones agreed, noting, “There is a lot of impact up there already. We already use snowmobiles, explosives, snow cats. Each of those impacts fall somewhat above the proposed helicopter use in my opinion. The proposed helicopter use fits within the scope and intensity of what we are running right now.”

Citizen Harvey Castro disagreed, stating, “Just because it is noisy up there already doesn’t mean that adding more noise is okay. That makes no sense.”

John Ellis pointed out that in the summer, snowmobile noise is not an issue and if helicopters were allowed to land above the lake, the impact would be significant. “Homeowners and visitors to Lake Irwin want quiet solitude… If you disadvantage the multitude of citizens who enjoy the pristine wilderness setting for the advantage and convenience of a few select clients, where is the fairness?” asked Ellis.

Focusing on the impact to Eleven’s business and bottom line, citizen Deidre Witherell asked Jones if those six clients who requested helicopter access and were told no, would they take their business elsewhere? “Yes, we have lost some business,” Jones replied.

“How much of a percentage of your total client base do those lost customers represent?” asked Witherell.

“I would have to research that,” replied Jones.

“But could you estimate that those six clients might represent two percent? And of those who cancelled their trips after being denied helicopter access, that might represent one percent?” asked Witherell.

“I suppose that might be a rough estimate but I can’t confirm those numbers,” said Jones.

“It sounds like a very small benefit to your business; you are not talking make it or break it bottom line if this is not approved,” continued Witherell. “But if it is approved, would you advertise helicopter access as part of your package?”

“I am not sure. To be determined,” replied Jones.

“Suppose you did advertise helicopter access, then we can assume that these numbers would grow,” said Witherell. 

“That is speculation,” replied Jones. “Our application estimates four monthly flights.”

Given time limitations at the February 2 public hearing, the Planning Commission will conduct a second public hearing on Friday, March 2 at 1 p.m. in Gunnison.

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