Hotelier Patrick Nesbitt may not be able to land helicopters on his property, but he might try to touch down in the Santa Barbara Superior Court soon.
The County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 against granting Nesbitt a permit to land and take off in his helicopter from his $65 million Lambert Road property twice a week. Supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino were in favor of granting the permit.
The vote appears to be the end of a long uphill battle for Nesbitt, though he and the attorney who filed his appeal, Lance Strumpf, said they are considering taking the issue to court for a judge to consider.
The decision should have been made over a year ago — on June 26, 2019 — but 175 letters of opposition pouring into the County Planning Commission gave cause to move the meeting back a few months to September. Nesbitt said he spent those months in between meeting with any critics he could find to sway their disdain, but September 25 came and went and the hearing was packed with more of the same angry neighbors, pleading with the commission not to allow Nesbitt’s permit.
“Just about every time a helicopter flies over our area, the local blog called NextDoor gets full of comments about helicopters flying off of my property,” Nesbitt said at the Board of Supervisors hearing Tuesday. But in the past three and a half years, he said, no helicopters have taken off or landed from his property except to rescue residents during the 1/9 Debris Flow and an instance when he gave a noise demonstration to members of Cottages at Summerland. He said there are other neighbors who land helicopters unpermitted on their properties, but he is the one who takes the heat for it.
“This issue is not about helicopters flying over Santa Barbara County,” Nesbitt continued. “According to the Santa Barbara Airport Authority there are over 700 helicopter flights through Southern County air space per month … If my permit is denied it will not eliminate the 700 helicopters that fly every month.”
But an overwhelming majority of the public has continued to lash out at Nesbitt’s project, amounting to hundreds of comments against it across multiple hearings. After the Planning Commission couldn’t make a decision at its September 25 hearing, it voted for staff to return to a November 7 hearing with findings for denial, and Nesbitt’s helistop was denied.
“Low-flying helicopters are not compatible with the peace and quiet that we covet,” said Ronnie Mellen, a Montecito resident of more than 40 years. “There’s an airport 20 minutes away. Helicopters create tremendous noise, windows rattling, PTSD. And you add to that pet anxiety, fire and accident risk, environmental concern, threats to wildlife. It’s hard to believe this is even being considered when it is so incompatible to our area.”
In addition to individual neighbors, members representing surrounding neighborhood organizations and homeowner associations like the Padaro Lane Association, the Carpinteria Valley Association, and the Montecito Association spoke out against the permit at the supervisors hearing, just as they did at the multiple Planning Committee hearings.
Nesbitt does have supporters, though. One of Nesbitt’s main pitches for the helistop is his promise to make it available to first responders in times of disasters like the debris flow. Though first responders are not legally required to obtain a permit to land during emergencies, county first responders have appreciated the sentiment. The Sheriff’s Office has consistently sent a deputy to voice support for Nesbitt’s helistop at every hearing.
Nesbitt’s philanthropic connections with the community during times of disaster and otherwise garnered support from more than just first responders. Supervisors Adam and Lavagnino said they couldn’t find a reason not to deny the project.
“I think that frankly, especially the way that public comment went, that this is a first-world problem,” Adam said. He directly addressed Jim Taylor who spoke against the helistop on behalf of the Carpinteria Valley Association earlier in the hearing. “Jim, if you get tired of living down there, I wish you would move up here [North County] because we could use a couple of billionaires to do expensive things and contribute to our well-being.”
The helicopter’s noise was a central issue to the permit request. Though County Planner Rey Harmon initially recommended the commissioners approve the permit because it met all the findings required for approval last summer, the commissioners directed staff to go back and amend the staff findings to deny the permit after substantial public backlash.
The new findings included that “the loud, percussive nature of the noise caused by helicopter takeoffs and landings” is incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood, adjacent trails, and nearby environmentally sensitive habitat, and that it would disturb equestrian activities on the nearby trails, among other reasons.
“We have to address the elephant in the room — the 101 freeway,” Nesbitt’s “aviation expert” and attorney supporter Strumpf said. He was referring to the noise created by the freeway, train, and ocean waves near the neighborhood. He said that noise is significant and would already drown out the minimal noise from Nesbitt’s twice weekly helicopter trips.
“This whole thing about the percussive noise — that was something the Planning Commission came up with on their own without any scientific evidence,” Strumpf said. “It’s not a beating drum. It’s not a jackhammer.”
Nesbitt paid for several noise studies of helicopter takeoffs and landings from his property that showed the noise level would not affect neighbors, but he said they were turned down because of “emotional arguments about helicopter noises.”
Though Lavagnino and Adam were convinced, the other three supervisors were far from it.
“It was stated that this is agriculture land but this is not a helicopter for agriculture use,” Supervisor Joan Hartmann said, apparently reading a news story on her cell phone from the dais. “CNBC talked to the listing agent who said that the owner recently added a helicopter hanger to the estate and is working on a permit to land on the driveway in hopes of making the ranch more attractive to buyers who live and work in L.A. That’s not an agricultural use of the helicopter.”
Supervisor Das Williams was mostly concerned with enforcement of those illegally flying helicopters in the area and methods to enforce conditions around helistop permits like Nesbitt’s when the county has little ability to penalize those not adhering to the permit conditions. Nesbitt’s proposed flight path would almost entirely fly over the ocean rather than residences, but the county has no way of enforcing his flight path.
“We are fortunate to have residents like Mr. Nesbitt who are willing to be partners in public safety, but we have to adjudicate and make public policy for both the righteous and the wicked alike,” Williams said. “We don’t know who will be there in the future.”
Nesbitt won’t be landing anywhere but the Santa Barbara airport — at least for now.
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.