Horry County to Myrtle Beach helicopter company: Current lease doesn’t fly

jrodriguez@thesunnews.comJuly 16, 2013 

— | Horry County Council voted to put Huffman Helicopters on notice Tuesday night that it would not be extending its current lease with the company, but assured Huffman it would work to get a new lease by October 31 – the end of the existing lease.

About 40 of the company’s 68 staff members were at the council’s meeting Tuesday night, along with Huffman’s attorney Chris Clark and owner Jeremy Bass. The lease that governs Huffman Helicopters – one of the two helicopter companies selling joy rides hour after hour along the Grand Strand – expires this fall and Horry County officials indicated they did not plan to renew it as is because of growing concern over helicopter noise.

Bass said Tuesday that his company, which is coming up on the fifth year of a 20-year lease, already has shifted its flight routes away from neighborhoods and is working on re-branding itself as Oceanfront Helicopters to satisfy the county’s concerns. He said after the board’s decision that he considered their vote a “win.”

“This is a total win,” Bass said. “We wanted a new lease anyway because of our aircraft maintenance business... as well as our flight training school. We wanted to wrap all of that into our master lease anyway. This just paved the way for us. Council was able to make a great decision tonight by granting the amendment.”

The initial resolution council considered only said that it would not grant the lease as is and did not indicate whether it was going to negotiate with Huffman Helicopters, which did not sit well with some councilmen, like Bob Grabowski.

“This resolution comes right out and just says we don’t want you, basically,” Grabowski said. “And I can, in no way, support that. There are too many jobs at stake here. There are too many other things at stake here. Why can’t this be more friendly and open and out there and say let’s talk?”

Councilman Harold Worley said he also had a problem with the resolution before it was amended, also.

“The way it reads, it’s just anti-tourism,” he said. “It’s anti-business.”

Huffman changed its route and began a re-branding effort to change its name to Oceanfront Helicopters last week in response to the county’s impending vote, according to Bass.

The key for Horry County Council and helicopter operators, like Huffman, is to come to new lease terms that outline flight plans and hours of operation that is amicable to both parties. If not, the Federal Aviation Administration can get involved and rule what happens in the corner space of the runway protection zone where Huffman helicopters take off.

“The problem is not Huffman Helicopters. The problem is not Helicopter Adventure (the other helicopter tour company in Myrtle Beach). The problem is amusement helicopter rides in an urban setting,” County Councilman Marion Foxworth said at a recent administrative meeting. “I can tell you right now, I still have serious reservations that amusement helicopter rides in an urban setting is a good business activity. Period.”

Huffman Helicopters’ flights are in Myrtle Beach and Crescent Beach, and its five-year lease with the county expires Oct. 31.

Bass’ company began in North Myrtle Beach in 1999 and eventually in Myrtle Beach in 2002. He employs 68 people annually and up to 60 more jobs may be created in the next 30 months. Bass said he knows of six complaints over the years about helicopter noise. Over the years, he said, the company has changed flight routes and altitudes to adhere to the county’s and public’s requests.

He said the recent flight route change has cost his company additional money because it can no longer fly straight-line distances, and five-minute routes increased to up to 10 minutes because of idle times on the ground and in the air. Bass said his company is aggressively working on re-branding efforts in the form of brochures with new maps and getting the word out on its new name.

“If you see a helicopter flying over the city, it is not us,” Bass said. “We’re trying to make it crystal clear to everybody that we’re now Oceanfront Helicopters.”

Some councilmen said they have received helicopter noise complaints from residents because of the frequency of the rides. Huffman Helicopters and Helicopter Adventures offer rides starting at $20. Helicopter Adventures has a launching pad behind NASCAR SpeedPark. A third company is considering opening three more helicopter operations in Horry County: One in Garden City Beach to fly over Murrells Inlet, another in Myrtle Beach and a third at Restaurant Row to do golf course tours over Grande Dunes, Arcadian Shores, the Dunes Club and Pine Lakes Country Club.

Helicopter Adventures has had a launching pad off 21st Avenue North since May 2012. It operates in the county’s amusement-commercial zoning area, which has been challenged in court and eventually defeated. It, too, has changed some of its flight plans shortly after opening and hearing complaints from some of the neighbors. It used to fly toward the neighborhood then to Broadway at the Beach but now flies in the opposite direction away from the houses, Helicopter Adventures’ owner Freddie Rick has said.

Rick said Tuesday the company is just glad to be in business in Myrtle Beach.

“We’re just happy that we’re here,” he said. “This is a tourist town and people want to see the tourist town from the air.”

As for changes in his company’s route, Rick said there are no immediate plans.

“There’s been nothing discussed,” he said. “This, I think, has to do with Huffman.”

Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said he has compassion for those who live under the flight patterns.

“You can’t go down Highway 17 without seeing helicopters,” Lazarus said. “We’re inundated by them. We’ve got to do something... We have to protect our citizens and start moving forward with something, because this is getting out of control.”

County Attorney Arrigo Carotti said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that airports are exempt from noise ordinances like the one in Myrtle Beach because they are on federally operated land.

“Whatever we arrange with Huffman hopefully can be done consensually, because if there’s an issue and the FAA becomes involved, they call the shots,” he said. “Huffman Helicopters can approach the FAA and in our deed restrictions, the U.S. government has an absolute right that we reconvey the property back to them. Whenever we receive federal grants... they can stop payment in the future and require payment of past funding, if they so choose.

“The FAA is, without a doubt, the thousand pound gorilla that we’re going to have to address unless we can arrange something favorable with Huffman Helicopters to the benefit of both parties.”

Another concern is the helicopter rides are included in Myrtle Beach International Airport’s flight tally. Officials aren’t sure what, if anything, reducing the number of flights could do for the airport’s funding or hours of operation for its control tower.

“It would affect [the flight tally], without question,” said Airport Director Mike LaPier. “I don’t know whether it would affect it to the point of reducing tower hours or eliminating funding. I can’t speak to that.”

The county’s planning department recently proposed a general law provision that would move the helicopter operations, which Foxworth said wouldn’t solve the problem.

“I think instead of doing a separation, we need to look at it in terms of a business activity like we did with casino boats,” he said referring to the county’s negotiations to move casino gambling to international waters instead of Horry County. “Cruises to nowhere. These are flights to nowhere. Short flights that start and end at the same origination place for amusement purposes and start regulating it that way.”

Lazarus said at Tuesday’s meeting that the new routes are a good start, but they are not outlined in any lease, which is what he would like to see.

“Understand, under those new routes that are before us, they’re not in the lease,” he told the council. “So if, at any time, Huffman Helicopters decided to change their routes just through FAA approval, they could do that because it’s not dictated or indicated within our lease what the parameters are.”

Bass was all smiles at the end of the meeting and said it is a great start to talks with the county.

“It’s a great win for us. It really is,” Bass said. “We’re really excited about it.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.

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