Collision Course : Model Choppers May Get the Ax at Highridge Park

Times Community Correspondent

To Ed Leahy, nothing is more fun than maneuvering a radio-controlled model helicopter as it climbs, hovers, turns, swivels and darts above Highridge Park in Rolling Hills Estates.

But to Rita Haines, whose half-million-dollar home abuts the 10-acre park, "it's just a loud, buzzy noise."

Although Leahy--and the 40 to 50 copter enthusiasts who come to the park on weekends from all over the South Bay--have the air power, Haines and her neighbors appear to have won the battle for the skies above Highridge.

In response to petitions signed by nearly 100 neighbors, the City Council has voted to ban the use of motor-powered model aircraft in the city. If the ordinance wins final approval at the next council meeting May 13, the ban will take effect about a month later.

'It's an Intrusion'

"I think it's an intrusion upon the quiet, rural neighborhood that people come to Rolling Hills Estates for," Councilman Jerome Belsky said in an interview. Neighbors also expressed fears that an errant copter could hit someone.

Model helicopters are fuel-powered and radio-controlled, and cost anywhere from $700 to $3,000, said Leahy, who owns a model helicopter shop in Lomita and belongs to the Southern California Organization of Radio Controlled Helicopters. The sophisticated toys weigh 8 to 11 pounds and their large, rotary blades have a span of about five feet.

The sport attracts a mostly male following of all ages. Experienced fliers teach novices about the machines and their aerodynamics. And in the South Bay, Highridge Park is where they like to fly their machines, although the group is working with neighboring Rancho Palos Verdes to obtain a permit to use one of its parks.

'Adequate and Safe'

"This is the only place we've found that's adequate and safe," Leahy, 31, said last Sunday while shouting flight instructions to a novice at Highridge.

Highridge Park, at Whitley Collins Drive and Highridge Road, is a minimally developed soccer field pitted with rodent holes and overrun with weeds. The hobbyists, who have flown their helicopters there for 10 months, say the field is used more by nearby residents to walk their dogs than anything else. They said the field is appropriate for helicopter take-offs and landings because it is flat and grassy, and because there is little conflict with other park activity. When conflict arises--such as a ball game--the hobbyists say they are glad to move or leave.

The park is the only place in the South Bay that the organization's members fly as a group, Leahy said. Some members drive an hour to fly there, said the group's president, Dave Weldon of Manhattan Beach.

While the enthusiasts admit that the mini-choppers occasionally crash, they insist that they are safe when used away from crowds. A sign with safety rules is propped against a utility pole at the park, and the rules are strictly enforced by group members, Leahy said.

As for noise, they note that the copters have mufflers, and they say that decibel readings show them to be quieter than a car driving down a residential street at 20 miles per hour, a normal adult conversation or children playing in a playground.

Insured for $1 Million

Each member of the group is insured for $1 million through the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a 110,000-member, 50-year-old

model flight organization in Reston, Va., said Geoffrey Styles, spokesman for the academy. He said most of the insurance claims paid out by the academy have been to pilots who injured themselves.

"The fact that we can buy insurance is indicative of the safety record of academy members overall," Styles said, alluding to the widespread cancellations and rate increases in the liability insurance industry.

But Haines--who said she had house guests cut a month's visit to two weeks last fall because of helicopter noise--noted that a list of members supplied by the helicopter club included no Rolling Hills Estates residents. She appealed to the council to represent its electorate rather than outsiders.

Leahy's wife, Kate, the club's secretary and newsletter editor, said the group includes Rolling Hills Estates residents but their names were not on the membership list.

One of them, Richard Elliott, a resident for 11 years, said although the city can bar the helicopters from the park, he believes that it would be illegal for the city to ban the helicopters on private property. "I talked to a civil rights attorney who said passing such an ordinance would be capricious lawmaking unless (helicopter flying) posed an ever-present endangerment to lives, health and safety," Elliott said. "It doesn't."

Elliott is also sending a copy of the ordinance to the national group's headquarters for review by its legal staff.

Councilwoman Nell Mirels agreed with Elliott on the private-property issue. She cast the single vote against the measure because she does not believe that a prohibition on private property is necessary.

"I just really feel this is swatting a helicopter with a 2-by-4 instead of a helicopter swatter. I just think this is overdoing it," she said.

Most cities do not have ordinances on model helicopter because other activities at most parks or park rules preclude their use, Rolling Hills Estates Community Services Director Sam Wise said.

'Worthwhile Pastime'

Some city and county governments nationwide, however, appear to be encouraging model aircraft flight, Styles said, "because they see it as a viable, worthwhile pastime." Casper, Wyo.; Palm Beach County, Fla., and Montgomery County, Md., have designated special parks for model flight, he said.

"This proposed action by Rolling Hills Estates is very negative and unusual," Styles said.

Leahy agreed. "All we're looking for is a flat place to enjoy our hobby," he said. "Wherever you have fun, there's going to be somebody against it."

Neighboring Rancho Palos Verdes may provide an airport in the storm for the beleaguered model pilots. Mary Thomas, Rancho Palos Verdes leisure services director, has agreed to let the group use the undeveloped Point Vicente Park next to City Hall for helicopter flight on a permit basis. She said an old helicopter pad at the park has proven to be as effective for the small craft as it once was for the real-life helicopters that used it when the property was a Nike missile site. The hobbyists must wait about 45 days, however, until construction at the entrance of the park and City Hall on Hawthorne Boulevard is completed.

Site 'Ideal'

Noting that the park is far from any homes, Thomas said: "I really think the site is absolutely ideal."

Bob Lace, a model helicopter flier from Rancho Palos Verdes, said he would like to see model flight preserved on the Peninsula, particularly for youths.

"It's kind of refreshing to see these young people saving their money to build models of various types. It's a healthy thing, educational and fascinating," he said. "One should take a long look at enacting legislation that inhibits this kind of activity."

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