Commerce Councilman Protests Quiet Approval of Heliport Service

Times Staff Writer

It's not what they did, but the way they did it.

That is why Councilman Arturo Marquez abstained last week when his colleagues opened the way for a new helicopter service to shuttle passengers--mostly business executives who can afford the $58 fare--between here and Los Angeles International Airport.

The council approved a permit for construction of a heliport within Commerce Business Park, the Trammell Crow Co.'s gradually developing office center that will be the largest in Los Angeles County when finished.

While Marquez said he strongly favors the heliport, he believes that the council should have first conducted a public hearing so residents could air their opinions.

Not that a public hearing wasn't conducted by some city agency: Marquez acknowledged that the city's seven-member Planning Commission, in fact, held one just last month.

But Marquez said that hearing was sparsely attended. And while Planning Commission sessions routinely draw only a handful of people, City Council hearings often see standing-room-only crowds. He said council members should have made an extra effort to make sure they knew the opinions of residents.

Two Attempts Turned Back

Twice over the past two decades, protesting citizens have turned back attempts to operate similar helicopter shuttles because flights would have traveled over residential areas, according to Mayor James B. Dimas Sr. When the owners of what is now Lloyds Bank tried to place a helicopter stop on top of that high-rise just off the Santa Ana Freeway, Dimas said "everybody was really upset" because of noise and safety concerns.

"I'm not against a heliport going in over there" at the Trammell Crow development, near the northeast intersection of Eastern and Slauson avenues, said Marquez, "because it's going (to have a flight path) over the industrial area. But I still believe we should have had a public hearing" before the City Council.

If Trammell Crow had sought anything other than a heliport, its conditional-use permit would not have gone before the council, because the Planning Commission normally has the final say unless an applicant wants to appeal a denial. But state public utility codes, in this case, required the council to add its OK.

Although Marquez said he doesn't believe that city officials were trying to "rush it through," he noted that the heliport measure was initially placed on the council's consent calendar, a portion of the meeting agenda that groups supposedly non-controversial items to be handled in a single vote to save time.

"It's not everyday that we have to approve a heliport," he said. "These are issues that the public has to be aware of."

Low Engine Noise

The shuttle service operated by L. A. Helicopter will fly three Aerospatiale AS-350s, six-passenger craft known for their low engine noise, city planning reports state. They are loudest at liftoff, but still won't create more of an uproar than what is already produced by traffic along busy Eastern Avenue. The nearest residential areas are at least a half mile away.

"I was surprised (at how quiet the helicopter engines are)," said Thomas B. Ortega, planning commission vice chairman, who recently took a test flight along with Marquez and other city officials. "I was in the (military) service and we rode in helicopters. And I know what it is to ride in a small plane and hear that noise."

Kevin J. Staley, Trammell Crow's leasing agent for the buildings around the heliport site, said construction of the 490-square-foot concrete landing pad should be complete by September. The facility will then be leased to L. A. Helicopter, which has permission from both the city and the Federal Aviation Administration to make up to 24 flights a day from sunrise to sunset.

The service is expected to draw customers from throughout Commerce. But Staley said the heliport will be "very nice to have" as "another amenity" for tenants of the 10-million-square-foot office park, which is to be fully developed by 1995. The complex already has 14 restaurants, four banks, a health club and a day-care center.

"Prospective tenants are reacting very positively to this feature," Staley said.

Major Crashes

No one is particularly worried about possible helicopter accidents, Staley said.

In the past two decades there have been several major crashes involving commuter or tourist helicopter shuttles. Two crashes within three months of each other in 1968 took the lives of 44 people who had been traveling to Los Angeles from Disneyland, in Anaheim. In 1983, six people were injured in a crash in Long Beach. And last December, one person was killed and 11 injured when a shuttle returning from Catalina collided with another helicopter taking off from a landing pad in San Pedro.

L. A. Helicopter is the only shuttle service in the county. It flies between the Burbank airport and LAX.

"The only concern that has been raised really," said Staley, "is we want to make sure it doesn't become too much of an item that cars driving by will gawk" at helicopter takeoffs and landings. So, additional trees will be planted to screen the heliport from view, he said.

Planning Commissioner Ortega dismisses Marquez's complaint that residents haven't been given adequate chance to comment. But he agreed that "usually the planning meetings aren't very heavily attended." Heliport discussions in May and June each brought out "maybe 10 people," although some may have attended for some other reason, Ortega said. Aside from helicopter officials, he said, "nobody spoke for or against."

But Ortega said that if Commerce residents had been concerned about the heliport they would have shown up at the Planning Commission sessions, which were widely publicized in newspaper legal advertisements.

"We're not trying to cater to anybody," Ortega said. "We believe that this will be beneficial to the community. Most of us agreed that it was needed. We have a large population of executives and they need this type of thing."

Ortega said it costs about $35 "just to take a cab from here to L. A. Airport." For those who don't mind taking a van, however, the Super Shuttle from downtown Los Angeles costs about $11.

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