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Council: As the Copter Spins

All about the temporary helipads for Formula One weekend

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 16, 2012

Council: As the Copter Spins
by Wikimedia Commons

The next time somebody wants to ferry tourists by helicopter across the Austin skyline, it ain't gonna be so easy.

That is the gist of an ordinance passed last Thursday by City Council, a response to temporary helipads now officially authorized to fly passengers to and from this week's Formula One events. Residents of the Barton Hills neighborhood were alarmed to learn through news reports that during the three days of events at the Cir­cuit of the Americas, a helipad would be installed atop a parking garage at the Barton Oaks Plaza complex, near the intersection of MoPac and Bee Caves Road. (Another apparently less controversial site will be atop the Embassy Suites at 300 S. Congress.)

Under the ordinance passed on an emergency basis last week – although too late to affect this week's operations – any temporary helipads will henceforth be limited to 18 flights a day (the MoPac helipad is expecting as many as 46 round-trips this weekend) while city staff gathers stakeholder input and comes back to council with recommendations for a revised ordinance. This week's operations had been approved Wednesday by Aviation Director Jim Smith, acting under his authority granted by the current law, and Smith told the council that the operators had complied with both FAA regulations and current city standards. (That didn't stop at least one neighborhood activist, Robert Corbin, from demanding Smith's termination.)

Melissa Hawthorne, president of the Bar­ton Hills Neighborhood Association, described the situation as "small town, big city blues," and said that while the NA is not opposed to Formula One, residents are concerned that they had not been notified in advance of the proposed helipads (apparently under consideration since April) and there had been no opportunity for public input. "We're good neighbors, and we're good hosts," Hawthorne said, referring to large public events like Austin City Limits Festival, adding that the NA should have been included in the process.

Hawthorne's remarks were echoed by other speakers (among them Cyndi Collen of the Bouldin Creek NA) and amplified by David Alsmeyer of TIG Real Estate, who said his business tenants at the Plaza were also alarmed by the prospect of disruption of their operations.

The ordinance was sponsored by Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo. Morrison said the city faces a potential "tipping point" of antagonism to tourism, and, "We're not going to let tourism drive our city past the tipping point." Tovo said the schedule of flights this weekend is "far out of scale with what is reasonable." The proposed ordinance will in principle require applicants to go through the "conditional use" process before the Planning Com­mis­sion, and for any events in the meantime, the 18-trip limit will be in force. Only Mayor Lee Leffingwell objected to the interim trip limits, saying the numbers were "pulled out of the air ... out of panic and thoughtlessness I can't support."

Council also approved a dozen annexations, including the COTA tract (although staff is still working on an emergency response cooperation agreement with Emer­gency Service District 11), and (on first reading only, and over the developer's objections) a development-in-the-making near I-35 and Onion Creek Parkway. It also approved the legislative agenda for the city's liaison team and heard two hours of discussion of the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan, but took no action; a sticking point for the mixed-use plan is how flexible to be about drive-through installations, one of the issues to be taken up at the next meeting.

Council meets Monday, Nov. 19, but only for the ritual of canvassing the city election results; the next regular meeting isn't until Dec. 6 (work session Dec. 4).

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