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Calabasas Site : Helicopter Pad Proposal Runs Into Turbulence

Times Staff Writer

On a patch of dirt and tumbleweed atop the Calabasas Landfill, David L. Hicks and William G. Poremba have some big plans.

The idea is to plant the patch with grass and use it as a helicopter pad, which their company, Air One Helicopter, would use to fly a maximum of 16 flights a day, most of them 12-minute trips to Los Angeles International Airport.

Air One’s proposal to build and lease the helipad from Los Angeles County has the support of Supervisor Mike Antonovich as a 2-year “pilot program” for which the county did not seek bids from competing helicopter firms.

But the ride is getting rougher for the proposal, which is scheduled to be heard by the county Regional Planning Commission next month. A homeowner group that previously supported the helipad is reconsidering its stand because of concern about the findings of a noise study commissioned by Air One. And the National Park Service is opposing Air One’s tentative flight path, which passes directly over a pristine canyon in the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

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“I don’t think people go to the park to have helicopters take off next to them,” said Park Supt. Daniel R. Kuehn, who also fears that the noise could scare hawks and other wild birds away from Cheeseboro Canyon.

Antonovich concurs with Air One’s belief that the helipad would be “a valuable public resource.” Besides revenue from the lease, Antonovich said, the county would have access to an additional helipad for emergency Fire or Sheriff’s department use. The shuttle service could carry a maximum of 96 passengers a day, and Antonovich said another reason to support it is that it would “help in reducing congestion” on the Ventura Freeway.

“Every little bit helps,” Antonovich said.

Antonovich obtained a legal opinion from county officials that the public landfill property could be leased to Air One without seeking bids because the landfill is designated as a future park. According to the opinion, state law permits no-bid contracts on public land with that designation if four of the five county supervisors approve.

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Bid Challenged

One fledgling company challenged the no-bid lease before giving up its plans for a helicopter service, and at least one major firm, LA Helicopter Airlines, said it would have relished the chance to bid for county-leased helipad space at the Calabasas Landfill.

Under terms of a draft lease, Air One would pay the county Sanitation Districts, the landfill operators, an annual rent of 2% of its gross receipts or $7,200, whichever is greater.

If the program is successful, after two years the county would publicly announce that it will accept bids for the helipad lease, Antonovich said.

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“If this would prove to have a negative impact on the community, then we would oppose it,” Antonovich said.

At Van Nuys Airport, the city of Los Angeles leases a comparable amount of helipad space for $10,600. But the city allows helicopters to be stored, repaired and fueled on site; the Calabasas Landfill draft lease would not.

Unique Operation

Poremba, who is publisher of the Acorn, a weekly 26,000-circulation newspaper based in Agoura Hills, said he knows of “no other operation like it in the U.S. where the top of a landfill is going to be used as a helipad.” The helipad is proposed for a part of the landfill not being used for trash dumping.

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But he and Hicks, a helicopter pilot, must first obtain approval of their business venture Oct. 26 by the Regional Planning Commission and later by the Board of Supervisors.

Despite endorsing the project a year ago, the Community Assn. of Saratoga Hills is re-evaluating its position, partly because of concerns about the findings of a noise study recently released by Air One, said the group’s president, Joan Buehring. The 226-home development previously endorsed the helipad proposal subject to several conditions including prohibitions against Air One subleasing the helipad, storing fuel there, and using take-off or landing paths over the houses.

Neighbors’ Fears

Even though the tentative flight path would not take helicopters over the houses, residents are concerned that the noise levels would still bother them.

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The noise study, conducted for Air One by Engineering Science and approved by county planners, says that with the tentative flight plan of helicopters taking off over the national park to the north and approaching over landfill space to the east, homeowners to the south and west could hear noise of about 70 to 75 decibels.

That impact of that noise level, the report said, “will be small due to the brief nature of the event and the maximum level are relatively low.” But the report also said outdoor speech would be “disrupted for perhaps 10 seconds” by the helicopter noise, which the report said would be slightly louder than a freight train 100 feet away and slightly quieter than a home garbage disposal 3 feet away.

‘Totally Unacceptable’

“That’s not pleasant to anyone around here, that’s for sure,” Community Assn. of Saratoga Hills board member Steven J. Eichberg said.

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Fellow board member Cindi Mazzola said the noise projections are totally unacceptable.

Fran Foster, president of the Liberty Canyon Homeowners Assn., noted that the Air One noise study did not consider the impact on the Liberty Canyon area southwest of Saratoga Hills, on the Old Agoura neighborhood northeast of the landfill and on Malibu Canyon to the southeast. Foster’s association has not taken a position on the helipad, but Foster said that given the occasional county fire or sheriff’s helicopter flights already in the area, “We’re not real thrilled about it.”

Hicks, of Air One, said the company is willing to alter its flight path to satisfy the Saratoga Hills group. But the tentative flight path, which Hicks said “is not set in bronze,” heads directly away from Saratoga Hills and over the national park.

William Webb, the park’s assistant superintendent, wrote to county planners this month that noise from the flight path over Cheeseboro Canyon, which the Park Service bought in 1985 with $8 million in public funds, would disturb the park’s estimated 5,000 monthly visitors. The county Regional Planning Department has recommended approval of the helipad lease without a full environmental impact study, and Webb accused the agency of ignoring the helipad’s potential impact on wildlife.

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County Helipad

A new county helipad will be available about 1 mile from the landfill at the future Las Virgenes sheriff’s station, which is expected to open in 1990. An emergency helipad already exists at a nearby county fire station in Calabasas. Webb said emergency use of the proposed Air One helipad is “not a consideration.” In a stinging criticism of county planners, he wrote, “Commercialism, therefore, is the only consideration being considered. . . .”

County planners say commercialism does not figure into their land-use decisions. Antonovich added, “When you’re fighting a fire, the more helipads you have, the better it will be to fight the fire and save property.”

Webb ended his letter by suggesting that an alternative flight path be adopted.

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But finding an acceptable route away from the park might be difficult.

The area still is largely rural, but in addition to existing housing tracts, residential development has been proposed or is expected to be proposed on several nearby pieces of land, such as Jordan Ranch in Ventura County.

“Somebody is going to have to lose,” said Buehring of Saratoga Hills, “whether it’s the national park, Jordan Ranch, Malibu Canyon or us.”

Better the national park than homeowners, said Austin (Roy) Munger, the county planner who reviewed the proposal’s environmental impact. He disputed the park’s estimate that 5,000 people visit per month and said most of them probably come on weekends, when the helicopter service would not be operating. He dismissed concerns about wild birds as coming from “people that told us the peregrine falcon could not survive in an urban environment, and yet we have them living in certain parts of L.A.”

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“The number of flights that you’re talking about would be insignificant,” Antonovich said of the impact on the park. “You’re not talking about a major airport.”

Need for Expansion

Moreover, Munger said, concerns about open space preservation should give way to the needs of an expanding city and county.

“There is no such thing as a true wilderness park anywhere in a metropolitan area, and this is certainly a metropolitan area,” Munger said. “Hey, this is L.A.”

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County officials determined a no-bid lease for Air One was legal after Antonovich, through an aide, inquired into the matter on behalf of Air One, county records show.

A July 20 memo from Antonovich’s senior deputy, Leeta L. Pistone, asked the county’s chief administrative officer to review the draft lease “and advise Supervisor Antonovich of what steps need to be taken to allow the Air One helicopter service to operated a charter helicopter service at the Calabasas landfill.”

The key to the matter is the landfill’s status as a future park, Assistant County Counsel David Bruce Kelsey said. “It fits right into the statute” making no-bid contracts possible in such cases, he said.

Lease Criticized

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“It sounds like they’re looking for some legal technicality for which they can do this without bids,” said David M. Brown, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. The federation, a coalition of 17 homeowners’ groups in the Agoura-Calabasas area, has not taken a position on the helipad proposal, some aspects of which Brown called “bizarre.”

Air One would pick up its customers by limousine and take them to the landfill, where, according to the draft lease, the shuttle service might encounter delays behind lines of trash trucks waiting to pay to dump their loads.

Brown said: “Here you have high-class businessmen that have paid good money to be flown to LAX, and they’re waiting in line behind some stinking garbage truck.”

Antonovich supported the no-bid lease for Air One because that company came up with the idea and aggressively sought a deal, Pistone said. But earlier this year, a company called City Air Linc wrote to county planners demanding to be allowed to bid on a helipad lease at the landfill. Tom K. Houston, an attorney who represented City Air Linc, said the company dropped its helicopter plans without pursuing the matter.

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Jeffrey Scher, chief officer of LA Helicopter Airlines, which operates shuttle services out of Van Nuys Airport and LAX, said he has been looking diligently for a helipad lease agreement in the Agoura-Calabasas area.

“There’s no doubt about it, if it was a public deal I would have bid very aggressively to get that,” Scher said. “That would have been my northwest link.”


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