Following months of impassioned, at times even hostile, debates surrounding hotelier Patrick Nesbitt’s permit application for a private helicopter landing pad at his Summerland property, the highly anticipated judgment day came and went at the County Planning Commission with no decision — the final vote will now take place in November.
Although three of the four commissioners (Daniel Blough was absent) said during their September 25 deliberations that they do not support Nesbitt’s project, the motion that passed requires planning staff to come back to a hearing on November 7 with findings for denial before the commissioners can officially vote to deny Nesbitt’s application.
His application is for a single helistop, which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as formalized helicopter landing areas without fueling or support facilities. At the first hearing on June 26, he originally asked for two separate helistops — one for personal use twice a week and the other for emergency personnel to use as needed in case of events like the Thomas Fire or the 1/9 Debris Flow.
He has since reduced it to one helistop, combining the two uses, and reduced the hours for personal use to twice a week between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. after he received significant backlash from the surrounding community. Despite his efforts to pacify opponents and prove his belief that their fears are baseless, it appears the county will likely turn him down.
“I’ve never found the argument for using the helistop for emergency services persuasive at all; in fact, I’ve found it laughable,” Commissioner Laura Bridley said. “Emergency personnel can land literally anywhere in the case of emergencies.”
Michael Cooney, Commissioner for the 1st District, which encompasses Nesbitt’s property, also said he could not support the permit approval.
“In my view, we’re not ready to grant a permit to land Mr. Nesbitt’s helicopter, or anyone else’s, along the South Coast on private property,” Cooney said. “Personal use cannot be granted on anyone’s property along the coast, no matter how large. … We could also spend much more time on the environmental review — six months, a year — and at that time, I’m sure I’d be voting the same way as I’m inclined to vote today.”
Commissioner Larry Ferini was the only one who said he would be inclined to approve Nesbitt’s permit, as County Planner Rey Harmon recommended they approve the permit because it met all findings required for approval. Harmon said Nesbitt’s permit passed environmental review and the accompanying noise studies and received a Negative Declaration, meaning no significant environmental impacts were found. “I don’t think there was enough evidence provided today to go against staff,” he said.
Dozens lined up for public comment, including Nesbitt’s neighbors, some speaking for and some against his permit. Among them were a number of the 175 people who wrote letters — mostly in opposition — to the commission in June, back to speak to the commission a second time about their outrage over the proposed helistop.
“Everybody I know in our area is totally opposed to this,” said Julie Hall, resident of Serena Park. “I don’t have anything against Mr. Nesbitt, but all I know is we are having helicopters over us on almost a daily basis and it feels like harassment. I’m part of the 20 percent of the population that is highly sensitive; it’s a genetic trait. … Helicopters are terrifying and make my body go into fight-or-flight mode.”
Her sentiments were echoed by at least ten others. Allison Grube, who did not speak at the meeting, is also a resident of Serena Park and strongly opposes the helistop. She corroborated Hall’s statement and said she regularly deals with helicopters flying over her property. The problem will get worse, she said, if the county allows Nesbitt’s permit. “It’s going to set a precedent.”
Although there were several public commenters who supported Nesbitt, including Chief Deputy Craig Bonner on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office, many said they did not have an issue with Nesbitt’s proposal itself, but they were dubious whether or not he could be trusted to adhere to his strict flight path and schedule.
“I oppose this because the enforcement is very unrealistic,” public commenter Terri King said. “Now that it’s been modified to only two flights per week at certain hours, who has the manpower and time in the planning department to make sure that happens?”
Nesbitt’s friend and “aviation expert” Lance Strumpf, who’s flown helicopters for 40 years, rebutted some of the concerns. He said Nesbitt would keep a log and fill it out each time he landed and took off from his property, and he’d turn the log over to the county for review annually. “That’s enforcement; it isn’t that difficult,” Strumpf said.
Ultimately, Nesbitt feels he should be granted his permit and remains hopeful for the November 7 hearing.
“My application is for a helistop on my property. It is not an application to fly over Carpinteria, Summerland, or even Montecito,” he said. “The helicopters flying over Montecito have nothing to do with me and are controlled by the FAA. … Take notice that anyone who was against me today doesn’t live near my property. Those who supported me live close by.”