Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Willits, California: REACH base study open for public comment

Mead & Hunt have provided Willits city officials with its initial California Environmental Quality Act study for locating the new proposed REACH air ambulance base at Ells Field. Based on the study, Willits city staff concluded the city would now prepare a “mitigated negative declaration” for the project, pending a public comment period.

In July 2014, REACH proposed to locate a REACH air ambulance base in Willits with plans to start up by November 2014. Threats of lawsuits kept the base from starting up, even temporarily until a full CEQA assessment was completed. REACH established a temporary base at the Ukiah municipal airport in January as it waited for Willits to complete its environmental review.

A public hearing has been set before the Willits City Council for March 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the Willits Center for the Arts to allow for public comments on the project.

The public is also being asked to provide comments on the project by mail to: City Clerk; City of Willits; 111 E. Commercial Street; Willits, CA 95490. Comments may be emailed to

The public notice also solicits comments from all state and federal agencies with an interest in commenting on the project.

Once all comments are received, the city will evaluate them and determine whether to adopt the initial study or to request further action.


“The only potentially significant environmental effect is noise impacts to residences west of the Airport due to use of a new helicopter parking position. Shifting the helicopter parking position further from the western property line of the Airport reduces the noise impact to less than significant levels,” according to the initial study by Mead & Hunt.

The city has endorsed the proposal by Mead & Hunt to “shift the helicopter parking position closer to the runway. Although not absolutely required, we anticipate that this would likely result in the leasehold being expanded about 20 feet to the north in the area near the parking position,” says Mead & Hunt Senior Project Planner David P. Dietz.


The project involves a .34 acre leasehold on the Willits Municipal Airport which will house an 1,850 square foot modular office, four paved parking spaces, a 20 foot by 20 foot helicopter parking position. The area around the helicopter parking position will be stabilized with rolled gravel or asphalt.

The facility will extend the developed area of the airport’s building area about 35 feet to the south. The modular office is consistent in appearance with the other airport buildings. The helicopter parking pad will be similar to nearby aircraft tiedown positions.

A dedicated Jet A fuel truck will be parked at the airport for REACH use only. The truck is expected to require refilling about every 4 to 6 weeks.

The project site was graded when the airport was built originally and is within the existing fence line.

The new facility will be visible to three residences located southwest of the project site.

The facility is expected to be staffed around the clock with emergency personnel. Initially pilots are expected to serve a 12-hour shift.

While “most patient services will occur away from the airport,” some patients may load onto the helicopter at the airport directly from ambulances. Depending upon the patient needs, ambulances may arrive with lights and sirens.

The increased ground traffic caused by the project is estimated at 10 vehicle trips per day.

Routine helicopter maintenance is expected to occur on site, either at the parking pad or in the existing nearby box hangar. More extensive routine major maintenance will be conducted at another REACH facility.

Mechanical problems to the helicopter which arise while it is parked in Willits will likely be addressed on site.

The helicopter currently planned for assignment to the Willits base is the Airbus EC 135. REACH anticipates there will initially be one flight per day on average but see this expanding to 1.5 flights per day. There will be days when there are no flights and days when there may be several, depending upon emergency demand.

The CEQA “document only addresses the environmental impacts of the facilities that will be created if the lease is approved. No environmental review is required to introduce regular helicopter operations at the airport. Helicopter operators have a right to use the airport. No approvals are required. In this way, airports are like roads; no approval is required for individuals to use either type of transportation facility.”


Evaluating noise impacts of aviation operations in California typically use Community Noise Equivalent Levels (CNEL). This evaluation gives heavier weight to noise generated by time of day. Noise generated between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. are given a five decibel penalty and noise generated from 10 p.m. to 7 a. m. are given a 10 decibel penalty compared with the same activity conducted during daytime operations.

The FAA has set 65 dB Community Noise Equivalent Levels generated at airports as compatible with all land uses, including residential.

Mead & Hunt used a more rigorous standard of 60 CNEL for the Willits REACH assessment.

Mead & Hunt concluded that a minor shift of the helicopter parking pad of 55 feet east and 20 feet north would lower any impact of REACH helicopter operations to a maximum of 60 CNEL at the airport fence line. While not required under FAA guidelines, Mead & Hunt recommended, and the city endorsed the proposed mitigation.

REACH helicopter landings would generate more sound at the closest house to the airport than a Cessna 182 landing but less than a Cessna 172 landing.


All impact of the project on biological resources were considered less than significant, including Keep the Code concerns over impacts to the spotted owl habitats.

Mead & Hunt concluded “the three areas where historical sightings of the Northern spotted owl have occurred have been and will continue to be routinely overflown by fixed wing aircraft. The REACH helicopter will also regularly overfly the northeastern location during arrivals. REACH may overfly all sites during departures depending upon the intended destination.”

Sound levels over the sites generated by REACH helicopters were similar to fixed wing aircraft which routinely fly over the sites. All aircraft traffic typically remains at least 1,000 feet above the nesting sites due to the elevation of the airport runway. Sound levels generated by all airport traffic was considerably below the sound levels considered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to constitute harassment of the owls.

Mead & Hunt contacted California and U.S. fish and wildlife specialists about the potential impact on spotted owls. Both state and federal specialists considered the project’s impact would be so limited neither agency would likely evaluate the project.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service specialist “indicated that the agency would not wish to involve itself in regulating the flight of medical helicopters generally.” Mead & Hunt requested a letter from the USFS anyway, and the specialist indicated a letter would be provided by April 4.


All other impacts of the REACH operation in the 36 page initial study were considered either to have no impact or less than significant impacts.

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