Helicopter Hangover Bedevils Rancho Santa Fe

Times Staff Writer

Paul Marks of Del Dios has heard the thunder. So have Bill Schlosser and the rest of his neighbors in the Rancho Santa Fe area.

It’s the kind of noise that yanks you right out of bed and sends you running for the door, a racket that regularly rattles more than one North County community.

“It goes: Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa!” said Marks, an attorney who practices in Escondido. “It sounds just like that--only a lot louder. And it doesn’t have to be real close, either.


“Every time one of these babies flies by, people rush out of their houses to see what’s going on. They assume something has gone terribly wrong long before the thing gets to the ground.”

He’s talking about the privately owned helicopters that have become a familiar sight--and sound--in some North County suburbs.

Because these days, rush-hour traffic jams aren’t just stacking up the freeways. The area’s growing pains are now being felt in the air as well as on land, especially in wealthy areas such as Rancho Santa Fe.

All too often, residents say, the skies over their estates and several surrounding communities are filled with hot-air balloons from Del Mar, private airplanes and military jets.

And those noisy helicopters--many of which land and take off from back yards in the neighborhood.

Taking Friends on Joy Rides

“We had one guy taking his friends out on joy rides every weekend, up and down the river valley,” said Albert Frowiss, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and chairman of the San Dieguito Planning Group.

“You sit in your back yard, looking for some peace and quiet, and you have this whirlybird zooming around your head like some sort of mechanical mosquito.”

Some helicopters have taken aerial photographs of Rancho Santa Fe houses and later peddled the pictures to homeowners, residents say. Others offer rather noisy public tours, pointing out the wealthiest estates.

“You get a lot of lookie-loos that come here from somewhere else, peer into our back yards and then go back to who-knows-where,” said Schlosser, another San Dieguito planning group member.

The hectic air traffic has led some Rancho Santa Fe residents to fear that, one day, well, the sky might fall.

“You mix all these aircraft together and it raises a real question of safety in the skies over our heads,” Schlosser said. “If one of those choppers hit a balloon or some guy in his Cessna on his way home from Burbank or Palm Springs, they’re both going to come crashing down to the ground.

“And then we could have a fire that would burn down much of this community. That’s why the general feeling here is that these helicopters need to be controlled.”

Today, the San Dieguito Planning Group will testify at a public hearing of the San Diego County Planning Commission, in search of a cure for their helicopter hangover. The residents would like to see toughened the county’s ordinances on the building of helistops--or landing areas--for privately owned helicopters.

Although helicopter owners now need a county land-use permit for such an area, the proposed ordinance would require at least 5 acres on which to build the helistop, which would have to sit back 200 feet from a property line, rather than the current 50 feet.

Addressing Noise Factor

The noise factor would also be addressed.

“Right now, noise is gauged on a per-hour basis, so you can make a lot of noise for a short period of time--such as with a helicopter takeoff--and still be under the required level,” said Marvin Jones, an associate San Diego County planner.

“The new ordinance would look at a single event. How much noise does the craft make upon takeoff and landing? Does it scare horses or wildlife? All that would be looked at when considering a permit.”

Still, planning group members know their chopper concerns aren’t exactly going to fly away.

Marks estimates that at least a dozen residents in the San Dieguito area now own private helicopters, which start selling at $100,000 and can run as high as several million dollars.

And, by the end of the century, according to estimates by the San Diego Assn. of Governments, 162 privately owned helicopters will be flying over San Diego County, double the number that flew only 15 years earlier.

Add to that the 300 military helicopters that now cruise the county, and you’ve got the makings of a major helicopter headache, Frowiss said.

“The truth is, we’d like to eliminate helicopters in residential areas altogether,” he said. “But, if we can’t get rid of them, we certainly want to control them.”

Fed Up With Bashing

William (Swede) Gamble, an FAA aviation safety inspector and career helicopter pilot, has heard just about enough bashing of the aircraft he has come to respect.

That’s why he’s going to be on hand at the planning board meeting--to make sure someone speaks up for the rights of helicopter owners.

“The helicopter is more than just a rich man’s toy,” he said. “Like a corporate jet, it gets people to places with minimum time and hassles.”

The helicopter issue has haunted Rancho Santa Fe for at least a decade.

Starting in the early 1980s, several residents of Rancho Santa Fe and nearby areas began landing helicopters at their homes without permits.

One notable owner was former San Diego Chargers owner Gene Klein, who flew his multimillion-dollar, twin-turbine Sikorsky S-76 helicopter in and out of his Rancho del Reyo home near Fairbanks Ranch.

“It wouldn’t have to be as big as Gene Klein’s helicopter to cause a problem,” Schlosser said. “There were a lot of smaller crafts that make just as much noise.”

In 1984, when Ronald Vinci received a permit from the county Planning Commission to build a helistop on his Rancho Santa Fe property, residents drew the line.

In such an affluent area, they reasoned, everyone could afford to have a helicopter in his back yard. They appealed to the county Board of Supervisors, which invalidated the permit.

The board also adopted an ordinance regulating the building of helistops. Three years later, Sandag also completed a study on the crafts’ effects on county residents and prepared guidelines for helicopter facilities.

“With all the jurisdictional guidelines--city, state, county and federal--it’s not easy to build a helistop,” said Ruth Potter, a senior regional planner for Sandag.

The Sandag guidelines included that helistops be built within half a mile of a freeway to accommodate the aircraft’s noise and that two helistops were not to be built within several miles of one another.

“We also specifically singled out Penasquitos Canyon because some hot shot was blasting through there like he was inside the Grand Canyon,” Potter said. “People don’t like their city parks trespassed by things like helicopters.”

Vinci, who owns a car dealership in Las Vegas and lives part of the year in the city, is still bitter over the board of supervisors’ decision.

“We got railroaded, period,” he said. “The wives of a lot of these Rancho Santa Fe types play bridge with people on the Board of Supervisors. You fill in the blanks.”

Vinci still owns a home in Rancho Santa Fe and takes his three-seater helicopter out for jaunts over the Nevada desert.

“For five years, I used to come hot-rodding down the San Dieguito riverbed, and I guess my neighbors got jealous and complained,” he said.

“I don’t think a small helicopter like mine caused any more noise than those earth movers over in Fairbanks Ranch or those gardeners who fire up their weed-eaters and lawn mowers first thing every morning.”

Recently, Klein sold his helicopter and withdrew his application with the county for a helistop.

With the influx of new helicopter owners in the area, however, the county ordinance needs further refinement, San Dieguito planning group members say.

“We’re taking a common-sense approach, fine-tuning the old ordinance from the standpoint of safety and community concern,” Schlosser said. “But remember, this won’t just affect one community, it will be a countywide ordinance so that all communities will benefit.”

Others Interested

Other communities have already expressed interest in the issue.

After receiving a letter from the county about today’s public meeting, the Valle de Oro planning group near Mt. Helix sent a letter expressing its concern.

“We’re thinking about the future,” said the planning group’s chairman, Jack Phillips. “In the area, there are several pending applications for resort hotels with golf courses. And, once they’re completed, these people will probably want helicopter landing areas.

“They can be accommodated. But they should also be included on the community planning map so people moving in know these things exist.”

Schlosser said the helicopters are in violation of the spirit of the Rancho Santa Fe covenant, a 55-year-old list of restrictions of development and design for the wealthy estate area.

“It has to do with aesthetics,” said the retired Air Force colonel and jet pilot. “When they drafted that covenant, they specifically ruled out things like pig farms and oil wells.

“Well, those helicopters with their greasy take-off areas, and maintenance sheds are a modern-day version of those pig farms. They wouldn’t have allowed them back then, and they shouldn’t allow them now.”

Schlosser would like to take that idea one step further. He wants the Federal Aviation Administration to declare the skies over his Rancho Santa Fe home restricted airspace for all aircraft.

“I’ve seen 20 balloons in the air over my house in a single afternoon,” Schlosser said. “And some of them go up over 1,000 feet, which is just too high.

“As we get more air traffic over this area, we think it’s the logical thing to do, extend the control area from Lindbergh Field to include Rancho Santa Fe.”

FAA spokesman Robert Vaughn said that would be impossible.

“That would mean any aircraft flying in that area would need permission from the Lindbergh Field air traffic controllers to fly there,” he said.

“It’s just not feasible. The area isn’t within the arrival or departure paths of large turbine-powered aircraft.”

Del Dios resident Marks said that living beneath a helicopter flight path is worse than being near any old airport.

“The noise is much more random,” he said. “You live under an airport flight path, and you can at least anticipate when the noise is going to come. You cannot, however, ever anticipate what your neighbor is going to do.

“The take-offs and landings can come at all hours of the night. It’s simply out of place.”

The FAA’s Gamble said the problem is one of land use, not regulation of air space, since federal regulations do not govern the location of helicopter take-offs or landings, as long as they are done safely.

“But no matter what the ordinance is, the solution is to use the good neighbor policy,” Marks said. “I don’t care how much money you make or how important you are, if you own a helicopter, you don’t take it out at 5 a.m. when people are asleep.

“You have to have the common decency to be a good neighbor.”