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Helen helicopter service owner vows legal battle

POSTED: June 24, 2009 12:18 a.m.

A man whose helicopter flights over Helen have drawn the ire of some residents said he’s not backing down after a judge ruled against him.

Jim Garst, owner of Scenic Helicopter Rides, said he will appeal White County Superior Court Judge Murphy Miller’s ruling earlier this month that temporarily grounded his flights out of a miniature golf course in downtown Helen.

Last weekend, Garst began flying out of a White County flea market just outside the city limits after receiving cease and desist orders from Helen officials.

Miller ruled that helicopter rides were not allowed under a 2003 conditional use permit the city granted for the Bavarian Mountain Miniature Golf Course. Garst, whose company started offering the flights last year, must apply through the city for a new conditional use permit if he intends to operate anything other than a mini golf course on the property, the judge ruled.

Four Helen residents brought legal action against the city under the name Citizens to Restore the Peace, saying the flights, as many as 44 in a day during peak tourism season, were a noisy nuisance.

Helen Realtor Bill Holtzclaw said the sound of the copter flying overhead can reach 100 decibels. Holtzclaw believes the helicopter tours are bringing down property values for homes around the Alpine village. He said his group has 20 to 30 supporters.

"For the people who have invested a lifetime here, I don’t think you’ll find a lot of residential property owners who are favorable (of the helicopter)," Holtzclaw said. "If you’re selling tube rides, it’s a wonderful thing. If you’re trying to sell a home in this area, it’s a different story."

Garst, who also operates a helicopter business in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, thinks critics of his business are a vocal minority in Helen.

"I have not talked to any business owners that want the helicopter gone," Garst said. "A couple of select families don’t want us there. The city of Helen has to decide if they want to be a peaceful residential community in the mountains or if they want to be a tourist destination. They can’t have it both ways."

Garst said his flights are "not anywhere near as loud as a Harley-Davidson riding down the street."

Garst said he could legally fly as low as 100 feet above rooftops, "but that would be rude." He said he’s changed his flight routes and flying altitude in deference to some complaints.

"We have bent over backward," he said.

Garst said he’s prepared for a legal battle.

"We’ve hired an attorney and we’re going to appeal the decision and we’re going to sue the city," he said.

Helen Mayor Dona K. Burke said the city commission all along has followed the advice of its attorney. After the judge’s ruling, the helicopter business must come back before the planning, design and review board and the city commission if it wants to resume flying out of downtown Helen, she said.

Burke said she didn’t think Citizens to Restore Peace achieved what it set out to do.

"A helicopter can still fly over Helen and anybody’s house," she said. "So the only thing I see is we’re not going to get any (tax) revenue from it. We have no control over the airspace."

Holtzclaw believes the answer may be a change in law and Federal Aviation Administration policies.

"There’s a need for the FAA to change this harassing activity," he said. "Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right."



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