Hurricane City Council works on ordinance for helicopter noise; SUU says complaints are ‘fabricated’

A new pavement seal coating on the helicopter apron at Cedar City Regional Airport is one of the planned projects to be funded by a new $1.27 million FAA grant, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 11, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — The Hurricane City Council tabled an item Thursday night pertaining to aircraft noise restrictions stemming from complaints about helicopters flying too low to residences.

The City Council began discussing a need for an ordinance earlier this year after signing a resolution of nonsupport for the Southern Utah University Professional Pilot Aviation Program and its use of the Hurricane Municipal Airport. In the resolution, the City Council threatened to close the airport if the aviation program continued disruptive activities.

Signing this resolution came nearly two years after documenting the aviation program’s activity and receiving numerous complaints from residents, Hurricane Mayor John Bramall told St. George News in a previous report.

These complaints included SUU helicopters flying as low as 100 feet above houses when they are legally required to remain at least 500 feet. Mainly, he said they want to preserve their quiet neighborhoods.

During the meeting on Thursday, Michael Green, an attorney who was hired by the city for representation in this matter, presented his draft of a Title 11, Air Terminal and Regulations Aircraft Noise Restrictions ordinance for the council’s consideration.

Nanette Billings listens to a speaker at a Hurricane City Council Meeting, Hurricane, Utah, May 21, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Nanette Billings, a council member, said her concern with the proposed ordinance is that it felt too restrictive, and she didn’t want to tell people “you can only run your business between these hours.”

Green said part of the federal rules is that they can’t just single out helicopters.

“The legal rule on noise is that there has to be some type of study … that says noise is a problem. And then the rule we have to draft has to meet the reasonable, nonarbitrary, nondiscriminatory regulations,” he said.

This study would have to show specific data that represents factual findings of decibels and dates over a reasonable amount of time.

“I’m not a lawyer that gets in the way of business. If you want to take and accept a little more risk if someone files a claim against us then we’ll deal with it then, I’m all about that, so you can do whatever you like.”

Billings said they are not picking out helicopters; they’re picking out noise.

“We do not want holidays, weekends, nights, limited for our pilots. We want them to be able to fly when they want to, we only want to work on noise,” she said.

Green said the problem with a focus on noise, however, is that once aircraft leaves the airport and flies outside of the airfield, there’s nothing the city can do about it.

“If that pilot wants to fly 501 feet outside of the airfield and just hover, there’s nothing this body can do,” he said. “The real answer to your solution is to get SUU to not bring helicopters.”

Council member Darin Larson said the main issue is that the city lacks jurisdiction when the helicopters are over the residences. And with regard to that, council member Joseph Prete asked Green what he suggested in dealing with helicopters creating noise and flying too low over residences.

Green said, “You’ve got to convince the aviators to voluntarily do things differently within another legal structure, which would be the university, and the university is going to have to say, ‘Our pilots aren’t going to do this. Our pilots aren’t going to do that.’ Because the FAA is going to come in and say, ‘Well, alright you built the airport, you’ve kind of got to deal with some of the bad that goes with it.”

SUU Aviation Program student and pilot flying over canyon, Iron County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of SUU Aviation Program, St. George News

Billings told St. George News that while the issue has gotten sporadically better since August, there will suddenly be 12 helicopters at a time in the area.

“I get calls and emails and pictures almost every week,” she said. “It’s not whether or not they come to our airports. The issue is flying over our homes so low they’re actually breaking the law.”

Bramall told St. George News that he thinks the end result for the discussion was that they don’t want to just target helicopters, they want to target anyone who’s “harassing” residents.

“Flying low or flying just to annoy people. We wanted him to put in the ordinances what the FAA rules were and then we would seek to file complaints and citations against those who violate the FAA rules,” he said. “We also instructed him to try to get a memorandum of understanding with Southern Utah University so that they won’t lie and break the rules.”

‘They really don’t need airports’

On the other side of this issue, Paul Cozzens, an Iron County Commissioner, told St. George News that SUU has been in the process of figuring out a different location for their “touch and go” operations.

“SUU called me and asked me about the problems they were having because they really don’t need airports,” he said. “They can be out in the desert. All they need is a really good cement pad.”

He said he contacted some landowners but some of the parcels were a bit too far away.

A helicopter from Southern Utah University’s Aviation Program lands during the annual Shop With a Cop event, Iron County, Utah, Dec. 7, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Lt. Del Schlosser, Cedar City News, St. George News

Michael Mower, executive director of the aviation program, told St. George News that they are in the process of getting a soil analysis completed by an engineering firm for a location west of Cedar City to lay 40-by-200-feet cement helipads.

“These are essentially small runways for helicopters,” he said.

They anticipate to have the engineer reports back and the land secured by spring 2021. He said they are also looking at locations at lower elevations to put in helipads south of Black Ridge.

“From a performance standpoint, we have to operate at lower altitudes so we can maintain our safety margins,” he said. “But we have not secured that property yet.”

They are hoping to put in 10 helipads to be used for aviation training.

He said this has been in the making since before the Hurricane City Council made complaints. In response to the concerns of the council, he said many of the local airports, including Hurricane’s, have been here “far longer than these communities that have sprung up around the airport.”

“When folks come in and say, ‘Hey I’m mad at you, because you’re now flying over my house’ – you live off the end of the runway,” he said.

Mower said they’ve been flying into Hurricane for almost eight years and haven’t changed anything, but the reason the complaints have come up is that a developer wants to remove the airport and build a sports park.

“And it was that developer that started these noise complaints, that started getting Hurricane City to consider all the things they are considering.”

Mower said they have had the ability to track all their aircraft. They can see altitudes, airspeeds and locations.

“We completely believe a lot of these complaints have been fabricated because we can see what our aircraft are doing.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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