Snyderville Basin residents will no longer have to worry about an air taxi service operating during the Sundance Film Festival or their neighbor landing a helicopter near their home. This week, the Summit County Council unanimously agreed to adopt an ordinance that bans private and commercial helicopter landings in the Basin.
On Wednesday, the County Council adopted the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission’s recommendation to enact an ordinance specifically regulating helicopter uses. Nearly 15 residents testified in support of the ban urging the council to “do the right thing” because the “tipping point has been reached.”
“I think this reflects how you want the public process to work. We had a situation that arose and we knew that we had to clarify our code to deal with that situation,” said Roger Armstrong, Summit County Council chair. “It went through our planning process and the public turned out for the meeting allowing us to refine the proposal that the community development department came up with and I think it worked at each step.
“We had excellent public input people were aware of the situation and it was pretty clear decision,” he said. “I think that the decision that we made respects the will of the public, period, and that is what our job is.”
The Basin Planning Commission recently recommended that language be added into the development code to address helicopter use. Planning department staff and various stakeholders, including representatives from the attorney’s office, Deer Valley Resort and helicopter operators, had drafted an ordinance evaluating those types of uses and proposed an application process. The subcommittee was formed after the controversy last January between the county and two private helicopter companies that had set up a shuttle service between Salt Lake City and a landing zoning along Old Ranch Road.
After a nearly two-hour discussion on Aug. 23, commissioners ultimately decided to strike private and commercial helicopter activities from the ordinance leaving exceptions only for emergency services, medical emergency landing sites, agricultural weed and pest control, livestock removal and public utility repair. Commissioners were split on whether to provide an exception for special event master festival activities. At the hearing on Wednesday, someone referred to the exception as the “loophole that will be exploited.”
County Council members chose to adopt the recommended ordinance without the exception for the special event activities. It will go into effect later this month. Anyone who violates the ban will be subject to a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to six months in a jail and a $1,000 fine upon conviction.
The ordinance establishes clear regulations for helicopter use in the Basin, but does not prohibit existing recreational activities, such as heli-skiing, which will still be allowed under a low-impact permit process in the Canyons Specially Planned Area and Resort Center.
Rusty Dassing, chief executive officer of Powderbird Heli Skiing, thanked the County Council for ensuring that he will be able to continue operating his business and affirming “that we are part of the community.” However, Dassing said he still has his concerns.
“I do think this is a recreation community and I hate to see us close the door on the ideas of other recreational activities that use helicopters incidentally to be prohibited,” Dassing said. “Obviously things like Uber got out of control and I am very glad that we put control on that. But I feel bad for people who have been operating in the Basin and have now lost the opportunity to do that and I hope that there is an opportunity for them to be able to challenge it.”
Patty Winterer, a representative of the Glenwild neighborhood homeowner’s association, said the County Council’s decision is evidence they took the public’s input to heart. Winterer said most of the residents in Glenwild support the ban, especially without the exception for special event activities.
Jim Tedford, who lives in Sun Peak, said it was obvious after the meeting “that we have a very capable planning commission and a very capable council who all did an excellent job.”
“But my only question is whether the SPA agreement up at the Canyons will leave a gap for someone to slip in there,” Tedford said. “They need to get on top of that now because the big concern is that now they will just need to go to the city. This is just County Council. We have to convince the city to do the same thing.”
Armstrong acknowledged that the ordinance could have that effect, however, he added that “you can never predict what will happen.”
“You would hope that the people in the Canyons would respect that the public doesn’t want that if it would be an adverse impact and they were to permit,” Armstrong said. “If there were to be a squadron of helicopters flying in and out of the Canyons they have to deal with the economic blowback of those kinds of decisions. I think that the community doesn’t want that and I hope that they could respect that.”
The Eastern Summit County Development Code remains silent on helicopter use, which, by default, means it is banned. However, some commented during the hearing that the county should consider adding language to it prevent similar issues from happening in areas such as Promontory. According to Dave Thomas, chief deputy attorney, the Promontory development agreement does have language in it that allows for consideration of a heliport.