What happens when the letter of the law runs into less well-defined limits such as civility and politeness? We end up with situations such as the one now involving Helicopter Adventures.
The business, set up to offer aerial tours of the area, opened its doors in May and quickly earned the ire of its new neighbors in the Plantation Point development, who loudly complained about the noise made by the aircraft as they took off and landed near their homes. Nevermind that the company had followed all of the rules in setting up its business, talking with county officials and jumping through all the hoops required by local laws.
“We worked with the county and city to finalize our plans for the business and obtained their approvals in every respect,” owner Freddie Rick said in a statement this week.
Now the business looks to be headed to court to keep its doors open, after the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals pulled the rug out, ruling Monday that a sight-seeing helicopter tour business does not fit the county’s zoning definitions.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Rick, not to mention the employees of his business who stand to lose their jobs if he’s forced to close his doors. After all, the helicopter business and its site had been signed off on by a string of zoning officials over the course of months. There was no reason for anyone to believe that the site behind the NASCAR Speed Park was illegal. If anyone should know what’s allowed in the county’s zoning districts, it should be Zoning Administrator Rennie Mincey.
And while we’re not zoning experts, the appeals board overruling of Mincey’s approval does seem shaky. Given the 4-3 split on the board, the decision obviously wasn’t cut and dried. The decision seemed to hinge on two conclusions, both of which are, if not suspect, at least subjective. First, board members questioned whether a helicopter ride could be classified as an amusement. Given the fact that those paying for the rides were doing it solely as entertainment and diversion, this seems a strange question. If the tours aren’t amusement, do board members believe customers were taking the tours for business?
Second, the board majority ruled that the facility, at which tour helicopters take off and land, is not a “sight-seeing depot,” which is specifically allowed under the zoning designation. Again, it’s hard to see why it’s not such a depot, given that the facility exists solely as a place where sightseers get on and off transport. But even if it’s not, the zoning designation in question does not limit uses to a strict list of businesses but just provides some, such as the “sight-seeing depots,” as handy examples. Indeed, the site is zoned for use by any business “providing entertainment primarily as a commercial activity,” which to our eye – and apparently the zoning administrator as well – would include the helicopter business.
But whether or not the business is legal and Rick succeeds in an appeal of the latest decision (as we suspect he will), none of these concerns address the question of whether the placement of the business was right, polite or civil to those who live nearby. In that case, it is easy to sympathize with residents.
Richard Hinde, who filed the appeal with the zoning board, described what he experiences to The Sun News in July. “The noise is bad and it’s a groaning noise,” he said. “It just wears on you. It doesn’t go away.”
With such a loud facility and business locating near a residential neighborhood, the complaints should not have come as a surprise, and perhaps Rick would have been better served by taking suggestions and input from neighbors beforehand. True, the company has done some work to mend fences after the fact, altering its flight plan to avoid flying directly over homes, but obviously it wasn’t enough to please residents.
What’s the solution? Frankly, we don’t know. It would be unfair and needlessly harmful to a business that followed all the laws in place, receiving subsequent layers of approvals before opening, to force it to close up shop on a very flimsy technicality. But at the same time, residents understandably remain perturbed that their neighborhood has become host to what feels like a busy airport. There’s a good chance that both sides, as much as they may not like it, will simply have to learn to live with each other for the foreseeable future.
What is clear is that situations such as these would best be avoided in the future. And that’s something the county should be addressing, by better clarifying what’s allowed and not allowed in its zones and by perhaps reassessing whether some commercial zones are too close to residential ones.
In a perfect world, many such disputes could also be resolved by closing some of the doughnut holes of county property inside the city, where county and city rules overlap, often unbeknownst to those who live or work nearby and sowing confusion at times over what’s allowed and what’s not. But we won’t be holding our breath on that solution. Though many agree that the state’s annexation rules are out of date and in need of updating, few in power seem willing to make such changes. Then again, we’d be happy to be proved wrong.