Flightseeing limit vote nears

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A measure on next week's municipal ballot would ground sightseeing planes and helicopters in the capital city after 5 p.m., before 9 a.m. and all day on Saturday. The measure's just the latest chapter in an argument that's been going on for more than a decade over the growth of tourist flights in Juneau.

Proposition 5 on the Oct. 3 ballot would also direct the city to ask the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the number of Juneau Icefield landing permits it issues to the number issued in 1994. And it would ban new heliports unless it can be demonstrated that the total noise impact resulting from their construction and use would be less than existing noise levels in 1999.

Initiative sponsors characterize themselves as victims of increasing tourist-flight noise forced into the campaign by an unresponsive Juneau Assembly.

Flightseeing operators counter with a list of technical and procedural improvements they say have made things quieter than they were.

The argument has been around a long time.

The assembly convened an Ad Hoc Floatplane and Tour Ship Noise Study Committee in 1988. Complaints about float plane noise were settled with an agreement between the assembly and Wings of Alaska that the float plane operator substitute three-blade propellers for the two-blade variety, and move takeoffs and landings away from the downtown dock, recalls Erroll Champion,a former assembly member.

Another panel, the Ad Hoc Noise Abatement Study Committee, came into being in 1992 after complaints about a buildup of floatplane noise on Gastineau Channel, aid George Imbsen, a citizen member of the committee.

''It was very political, with two obvious sides -- those who were disturbed and those who made the profit,'' Imbsen said.

Noisy Cessna 206 float planes were traded in for the quieter DeHavilland Otters now in use, and takeoffs and landings were moved further away from the Juneau side of the channel but closer to residents on Douglas Island.

In 1997, a new panel, the Tourism Advisory Committee, addressed the noise problem by initiating a voluntary compliance program. Earlier this year, after tour interests on the committee said it had become ''dysfunctional'' the assembly revoked the panel's charter.

''The operators really don't want to do anything,'' said Ray Preston, a backer of the noise initiative. ''And those of us concerned about the noise who talked to the assembly, we ran into a stone wall.''

Assembly member Frankie Pillifant, chairwoman of the Planning and Policy Committee, disagrees, citing a city-commissioned noise study that was just completed and a mediation project designed to bring all sides of the argument together by mid-October.

Meanwhile, flight operators list what they consider to be substantial noise reduction steps, including trading in noisy aircraft for larger, quieter ones, limiting hours of operations and a reduction of float-plane departures.

And they warn that passage of the initiative could bite deeply into businesses dependent on the tourist trade.

Over each of the last two years, Wings of Alaska has lost an average $460,000 during the seven months it is without tourist-related revenue, chief financial officer John Lucas said. With fewer profits from tourism, the company could not continue its year-round scheduled and charter service to Southeast Alaska communities, Lucas wrote in a company financial report.

But Preston notes that the controversy, like tourism has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years.

''I don't think tourism should be looked at or seen as a religion -- and we're not the heretics,'' Preston said.

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