County says no to chopper ordinance

By Jason Ferguson

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Telling the involved parties they would prefer they work the issue out among themselves, at its March 20 meeting the Custer County Commission decided against a requested ordinance that would have declared helicopter tourist traffic flying over county residents’ homes a nuisance.

“Ideally it would be great if we could all work together to rectify this,” commissioner Craig Hindle said.

The problem with that, say David Lee and Lisa Brown, is that the company responsible for the helicopters they say is affecting their quality of life, Black Hills Aerial Adventures, has been unresponsive to their requests to change a route that flies over their home.

Mike Jacob, owner of Black Hills Aerial Adventures, told the commission that is not the case.

At the March 6 meeting of the commission, the Browns and another person under Black Hills Aerial Adventure’s flight path on its Custer State Park route, Denise Thompson, said the constant noise of the helicopters is having a detrimental effect on their quality of life and they would like to see the county craft, enact and enforce a nuisance ordinance that could restore peace in the skies above their homes six months out of the year.

The Browns said the slapping noise from the helicopter rotors can get so bad it shakes the windows of the home and if they are entertaining guests and are on the porch when a helicopter flies overhead, the conversation must cease. David Lee Brown said it also stops him from making a living as a recording artist for six months of the year.

“If it wasn’t already a nuisance, and if it wouldn’t continue to be a nuisance, we wouldn’t need an ordinance,” Lisa Brown told the commission March 20. “If we make an ordinance and he abides by it, it won’t be a problem either.”

The Browns came to the March 20 meeting armed with letters from others in the helicopters’ flight path in the area, all of which lodged the same complaints that the Browns and Thompson had previously. Representatives from Outlaw Ranch were also on hand to express their annoyance with the flights over the ranch.

At the March 20 meeting, the Browns said the helicopters prevent them from having a wagon ride business on their property because they feel the noise is a safety hazard for such a business.

“We don’t feel a tourist operation should be operating at the expense of people’s livelihoods, business interests, comfort, etc.,” Lisa Brown said. “We have asked Mike to change the route. He has adjusted it but it continues in our area. If we could come to an agreement or change of route that was meaningful, we wouldn’t be here.”

David Lee Brown said there were “millions of acres and hundreds of square miles” of uninhabited land over which the helicopters could fly, adding it’s hard to put into words just how disruptive the helicopters are over and over on a daily basis during tourism season.

“We can’t move our house. We can move away, but that’s not our goal,” he said. “We moved to the Black Hills for the quality of life. You can’t put a number on that. There is no dollar amount.”

Lisa Brown said she sent Jacob a letter saying she wanted the route changed entirely, because adjusting the route has “not made a lick of difference” because the pilots are not consistent in the route.

For his part, Jacob, who was not at the March 6 meeting but was present at the March 20 meeting, said he was at the meeting to answer questions, but not to argue with the Browns.

“Dr. Brown has contacted me instructing me on how to instruct my pilots on which direction to turn to minimize (the noise),” he said. “We have done just that to appease her to prove we are attempting to get along with them.”

Jacob said Black Hills Aerial Adventures has been in business for 29 years, and has routes that are set and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Lisa Brown later contested that the FAA sets Jacob’s routes, but rather, gives up a thumbs up or thumbs down to the route the business submits.

Jacob said he has worked with the Browns on multiple occasions, including taking them on flights to show them the routes, which he said they approved.

“We took you with us when we established that route, and you said ‘if they fly this route, it’s fine,’” Jacob said to Lisa Brown.

“But they don’t fly it, Mike,” she responded.

Jacob said he hires 30 pilots each year and trains them to follow the exact route specifications to the best of their ability. He cannot be on every flight to make sure exact protocol is being followed, he said.

“I can assure the commission we do everything we can to fly neighborly,” he said. “I can’t tell if someone does something that is slightly out of the norm. We’re not just out drilling holes in the sky trying to irritate people.”

Jacob said he has adjusted the route by the Browns’ house “several times,” and said there are many factors that determine flight paths. Among those are FAA and National Park Service regulations and the requirement for safe landing areas along the route in case of emergency.

There are more and more homes being built in the area, Jacob said, and every time a route is adjusted, it impacts someone else.

“I think that’s what is happening with Outlaw Ranch,” he said. “We continue to move a little further west to try to minimize the impact on the Browns. In doing that we create an impact on someone else.”

Lisa Brown said she discussed the issue with an FAA ombudsman, who told her to voice her complaints to the local FAA office. There she was told the FAA had a “good neighbor policy,” but she cannot get a formal description of said policy. She reiterated that the FAA’s main concern is the safety of the flights, not the noise. At the previous meeting low flying was one of the complaints lodged against Black Hills Aerial Adventures.

Jacob said the company can legally fly at 300 feet, but flies at 1,200 feet near the Browns’ home. He said FAA officials have been on site at the Brown property to monitor the helicopters’ activity. The Browns said they were unaware of that taking place.

“(The Browns) have complained to the FAA numerous and they have responded numerous times and indicated we are doing absolutely nothing that is unsafe, illegal or in violation of any federal regulations,” he said. “I fully understand helicopters create noise. We do our best to try to minimize that noise.

Jacob said the Browns’ complaints have now gone from noise to visual.

“If they look up and see a helicopter, we’re getting a call,” he said.

Jacob said training for new pilots would begin toward the end of April and he will once again invite the Browns out to fly the route and see how the pilots are being trained.

Commission chairman Jim Lintz told the crowd the commission had no desire to enact a noise ordinance, saying it would adversely affect too many in the county and would be difficult to enforce.

“We hope the parties will work together to try to resolve it,” he said.