Tighterrules for Tahoe skies?
March 23, 2006
KINGS BEACH – Basin residents and environmentalists concerned about private helicopters fly-bys over Lake Tahoe say the aircraft don’t just irritate eardrums.
At this week’s Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board meeting, some expressed concern that low-flying helicopters scare away basin wildlife, namely its eagle population.
“Sierra Club members are very concerned that if something is not done our eagles will be gone,” said Sierra Club chair Michael Donahoe during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting. “I recommend this item be agendized.”
Both TRPA board members and staff agreed that stricter regulations could be made.
“I agree these are annoying flights,” said TRPA Executive Director John Singlaub. “We don’t have legal recourse yet.”
South Lake Tahoe resident Jim Hildinger said “99.999 percent (of the 720,000-plus visitors to the basin) would agree that having a helicopter fly overhead every 30 minutes all day long is an undesirable experience as a part of their Lake Tahoe vacation.”
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Hildinger estimated that about 2,160 visitors cruise above the lake in helicopters annually, which only constitutes .015 percent of visitors.
“The commercial helicopter tour people will tell you that they have the quietest aircraft available and they will maintain a responsible altitude during flights,” Hildinger said. “Standing on the pier at Camp Richardson, I can hear that machine during its entire flight from the time it takes off from the airport until it returns 20 minutes later.
“It takes 10 minutes to unload and re-load and here it comes again.”
Airport officials, however, said they cannot control the actions of pilots coming from outside the area.
“If they don’t originate here or don’t land here, there’s not a whole hell of a lot I can do,” said Smokey Richard, manager of the Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe. “My tenants and I talk quite a bit to clarify and establish routes and altitudes to minimize impact on the lake.”
TRPA board member Mike Weber, who also serves on the airport commission, came to the defense of the airport and its operators.
“They’re more than willing to comply,” Weber said. ” We’ve had a couple private helicopter jockeys skimming the water and they give everyone a bad (name).”
Jordan Kahn, assistant legal council for the agency said the board and general public will, in fact, be hearing more on the role the TRPA plays in helping regulate those who fly in and around the basin.
“There are national rules (for flying) and we feel we have (legal) precedent to make them stronger,” Kahn said.
At least one heli-tour guide said that it’s not the legitimate businesses in the basin that are causing problems.
“There are several (private) helicopter owners from the Carson Valley that buzz right over the lake,” said Claudio Bellotto, owner of South Lake Tahoe-based Heli-Tahoe. “Some of the complaints may be founded (for those pilots), but I can ensure that anyone who might be interested we try to avoid any trouble and any noise complaints by using different altitudes and routes.
“Besides safety, (noise) is our main concern. But unfortunately we are paying the price from someone else’s carelessness,” Bellotto said by telephone. He added that he would be more than happy to talk to anyone who has a complaint about his services.
“I wished I had known or had been invited to talk about it. I follow all jurisdictions of the FAA and we do everything legal,” he said.
Several TRPA board members noted that the Grand Canyon is one national park that has outlawed helicopters altogether. The basin could not pass such measures because it is not solely federal land, Kahn explained.
“Perhaps we could identify (legitimate) helicopter operators in the basin with a symbol on the bottom so they’d be easy recognizable,” Kahn said.
Measures like this would be welcomed by businesses like Heli-Tahoe.
“I haven’t flown close to the ground, ever,” owner Bellotto said. “I don’t feel like I should defend myself because our safety policy is to perform emergency maneuvers which require altitude. It’s in the digital flight logs.
“It’s just too bad others can ruin a legitimate (businesses’) reputation.”