It’s not unusual for a businessman to drop his wife off at their home.
But the way Frank Robinson chooses to do it from time to time has gotten him into a jam with his neighbors.
The owner of a helicopter manufacturing company in Torrance, Robinson has been landing his own craft--a 1,300-pound helicopter with a 25-foot rotor--in the grassy backyard of his bluff-top home on Longhill Drive.
“I’ve landed five times over the last six years, all brief stops to drop off or pick up my wife,” he said. “I’ve probably been on the ground no more than one or two minutes.”
But three helicopter visitations within a 13-month period prompted a group of residents, headed by Robinson’s next-door neighbors, to complain to the Federal Aviation Administration, the city and to Lomita sheriff’s station officers, who police Rancho Palos Verdes. A petition signed by 50 people, demanding a law to prevent landings in residential areas, was filed with the city and the sheriff after the last landing in May.
“Residents are upset because there always is an element of danger that this thing might crash,” said Hassney Hamood, Robinson’s neighbor and a physician who practices in Long Beach. “There’s noise and it’s a nuisance.”
Hamood said that the first time his wife, Paula J. Hill, witnessed a landing, on an afternoon in April, 1984, “she was tending a plant, saw a headlight coming, and fell forward because she was so startled.” When the craft landed, he said, she experienced dizziness and a ringing in her ears from the noise.
Robinson’s backyard helicopter landings do not violate federal safety regulations or state laws, officials said. According to the city, the landings do violate a zoning code that requires a conditional-use permit for operation of a designated helicopter stop, but the city never has cited Robinson.
City Manager Don Guluzzy said he was not aware of the Robinson situation until June 4. Later in the month, he said, the city told Robinson in writing not to use his property as a helistop without obtaining a permit. There are no authorized helicopter landing spots in Rancho Palos Verdes, according to the city.
The residents last week asked the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to cite Robinson for disturbing the peace in violation of the state Penal Code, but a hearing officer recommended against filing charges because Robinson’s actions have not been malicious.
At a meeting last week involving Robinson, his angry neighbors and city staff, Robinson agreed not to land his helicopter in his yard again unless “a very serious emergency arose.” Robinson defined emergency as “someone being hurt and having to go to the hospital"--not ferrying his wife, Barbara, to and from home.
Guluzzy said he wants Robinson to agree to this in writing. If he does not, Guluzzy said, he will talk to the City Council about enacting an ordinance “to flat out prohibit helicopter landings in residential areas.” Guluzzy said the Robinson situation is unprecedented in the city and may not require an ordinance.
Critical of Guluzzy for seeming to “leave it up to Robinson,” Hamood said he and other residents want legal protections regardless of what Robinson does.
“This activity should be stopped, period, and not by letting Robinson say he won’t unless there’s an emergency,” Hamood said.
Mayor John C. McTaggart said the City Council should take the initiative, adding that he will ask the council very soon if there is support for an ordinance.
“We get complaints about the sheriff’s helicopter when it breaks up a party, and that’s for a good purpose,” McTaggart said. “I see no good purpose in using residential property for helicopter landings.”
Robinson said he has violated no laws and does not consider a written statement necessary. But, he said, “I won’t say I won’t sign.”
The FAA has determined that Robinson has not violated federal air safety regulations because he has clear access to the property and sufficient space to land a helicopter, said Jim Welton, a spokesman for the FAA’s Western Region.
Sheriff’s Capt. Elmer Omohundro, Lomita station commander, said no state or county laws prohibit the type of helicopter landing Robinson has been doing. “You can’t enforce something that doesn’t exist,” he said.
‘People Are Concerned’
Robinson, who said he has built 500 of his helicopters since opening Robinson Helicopter Co. in 1973, said they are smaller and quieter than most helicopters “and are capable of going in and out of small areas safely and with a minimum of noise.” He said the approach to his yard is over a “steep slope covered with ice plant and grass.” He said his yard is about 50 feet by 60 feet, but Hamood contends that it is smaller.
Hamood said that even if Robinson can “land on a dime,” it is unreasonable to touch down in a built-up area. He said the craft is 100 to 200 feet above homes at the base of the slope as it approaches Robinson’s yard and “these people are concerned.” In an interview, one of those residents, William Britts, called the flights “a danger to the neighborhood.”
McTaggart said that regardless of what the FAA says about safety, “when a helicopter is landing, it is a threat.”
Robinson said he is being criticized by people who do not understand helicopters. “It’s unusual for them to see them and they get all concerned,” he said. “If I committed an error, it was in not alerting my neighbors.”
City Hall Demonstration
Hamood said he and his wife had little contact with the Robinsons before the dispute arose. After the controversy over his landings began, Robinson said, he took the craft to City Hall at the city’s request and demonstrated its capabilities for Guluzzy.
Robinson said he has some complaints of his own about neighbors, including the Hamoods’ “two big Dobermans who can bark pretty rough at night.” He also said someone across the street “is learning to play the clarinet and practices at night.”
“I’m doing the best I can to control the Dobermans,” said Hamood. “All I want is for Mr. Robinson to do what is appropriate in his backyard. Playing a flute is not like landing a helicopter.”