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Helen helicopter business fuels noise complaints

POSTED: August 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Pilot Dean Campbell of Scenic Helicopter Tours poses recently in front of a Robinson R44 helicopter in Helen. Many people have complained about helicopter noise.

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The owner of a helicopter tour business in Helen is trying to address the concerns of residents who have complained about the noise.

Eric McMillan, owner of Scenic Helicopter Tours, has asked the Helen City Commission to schedule a public meeting on the issue. His request comes after the commission received a petition July 15 from people who oppose the business.

City Manager Jerry Elkins said the commission will probably decide on a date during its next regular meeting on Aug. 5.

"We’ve had a number of complaints (about the helicopter), a few from tourists, but mostly from people who live nearby," Elkins said. "It’s usually the same people complaining repeatedly."

The petition, which contains 94 signatures, was submitted to the commission by longtime Helen resident Delbert Greear. At the July 15 meeting, he compared the helicopter noise to the "blitz of England" during World War II.

Delbert Greear is a cousin of Helen Mayor David Greear, and they live in the same neighborhood. David Greear said Monday that about 25 percent of the people who signed the petition were Helen residents. "The others were residents of (White) County, or people who work in Helen," he said.

David Greear said he knew when the commission approved the helicopter flights that the noise "was going to be a hot issue." He said the same problem occurred back in the 1990s when another helicopter business briefly operated in Helen. That individual, he said, left voluntarily and was not forced out by the city.

McMillan began operating his business about three months ago on the south end of Helen. He offers helicopter tours seven days a week, ranging from brief up-and-down flights to excursions that cover all of the Northeast Georgia mountains.

McMillan said business has been good, and for the most part he has been welcomed in Helen, where the economy is based almost entirely on tourism. But there’s no getting around the fact that helicopters make noise. He said he has tried to be a "good neighbor."

"We have modified our route three times to accommodate these people," he said.

David Greear said the problem with altering a route is that it just shifts the noise to someone else’s neighborhood.

"I don’t know if there will be a resolution that can satisfy everybody," he said. "I think what gets the most annoying to me are the short trips where (the pilot) is circling over constantly."

Greear said over the Fourth of July, he counted 44 helicopter flights, and said it was impossible for people to enjoy being outdoors in their own yards.

"Residents often feel neglected in Helen because we’re so tourism-oriented," he said. "The Realtors are concerned about the effect it may have on property values."

In letters to the White County News, several writers have demanded that the city shut down the helicopter business. But Elkins said the city issued the company a permit to operate and cannot now rescind it.

"We’ve had opinions from two different city attorneys, and they’ve both said there’s nothing we can do from a legal standpoint," Elkins said. "Our noise ordinance is too vague to apply. And you can’t adopt a law that (retroactively) targets a particular business."

Elkins, who works at city hall in downtown Helen, said he personally hasn’t been bothered by the sound of the helicopter.

"I very seldom ever hear it when I’m inside working," he said.

The commission held public hearings about the helicopter business before allowing McMillan to go ahead and build the landing platform. He vowed at that time to do what he could to keep noise to a minimum.

McMillan said the upcoming public meeting will be "more of a negotiation" between him and those who have been doing most of the complaining, and that he plans to have his attorney there.

"This is the last attempt I will make to pacify these people, and if this does not work, then the judicial system will be dealing with it," he said. "There’s room here for the both of us, but you’ve got to be willing to compromise."

Merle Long, owner of Helen Water Park and Tubing, said he and other merchants are afraid that what he calls "a few old farts who have been here forever" will try to shut down McMillan’s company.

"(The helicopter) is the best thing that’s happened in Helen," he said. "The business people are tickled because it brings money into town. I have people coming in all the time, asking me where they can ride the helicopter. We feel it’s an asset."

So far, the helicopter noise does not seem to be deterring visitors from spending the night in Helen. Nathan Peters, spokesman for Bavarian Brook Rentals, which manages condos and cabins throughout the Helen area, said as far as he can tell, the hospitality business has not been affected.

"I haven’t really heard any complaints from customers," he said.

McMillan argues that the helicopter has benefited White County beyond the tourism dollars that it brings in.

"We donated our time to help search for the young lady who fell off Yonah Mountain. We spotted a forest fire immediately after it was started by a thunderstorm. We’ve monitored other fires free of charge," he said. "I’m giving back to the community."

David Greear said he just hopes there’s a way to solve the impasse without either side resorting to litigation.

"I do want everybody to try to get along," he said.



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