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Heliport negotiations to continue, potential new locations explored

“I think reducing the maximum number of sight-seeing flights from 45 would be a very good way to both reduce GHGs (greenhouse gases) and also address some of the environmental, social and emotional issues that have been raised by the community on the frequency of the flights."

CANMORE – A lease between the Town of Canmore and Alpine Helicopters at the heliport will have to wait, as the two sides continue to negotiate and examine possible new locations for helicopter operations.

In a series of motions, Town council directed staff to continue to negotiate with Alpine on a deal that would be more amicable for the business, the Town and nearby residents. Council also voted unanimously to have staff work with Alpine for possible new locations for a relocated heliport, despite the understanding it would likely result in a wholesale change for the business and the town.

“I recognize that’s a long shot, but if there was a viable location that could be established as a future heliport then we can address so much of the concern we’re getting from the community on the noise of the takeoff and landing and we wouldn’t have to go through this every time a lease is negotiated,” Mayor John Borrowman said, adding the existing heliport land could be repurposed for affordable housing.

“It’s worth having the conversation and taking the time in exploring this opportunity.”

Councillor Joanna McCallum highlighted people in the community are appreciative of the benefit Alpine’s rescue operations have, but the issue of the company's location is more complicated.

“Where they’re located wasn’t an accident," she said. "They were on the edge of town and the councils of before were the ones to approve homes around that commercial use and people proceeded to purchase homes around that commercial use of their own freewill. I’m cognizant of that, but at the minimum we have an obligation to work and try and find a future opportunity for them.”

The continued negotiations would focus on increasing the minimum duration to longer than 20 minutes and reducing the number of flight-seeing sights a day below 45. Council voted 5-2 to continue with negotiations, as McCallum and Coun. Jeff Hilstad were opposed.

“I think reducing the maximum number of sight-seeing flights from 45 would be a very good way to both reduce GHGs (greenhouse gases) and also address some of the environmental, social and emotional issues that have been raised by the community on the frequency of the flights,” Councillor Vi Sanford said.

While there’s no guarantee anything will change from what was brought forward to council on Tuesday (June 1), it will see the two sides continue to meet before the existing contract expires on Nov. 30.

The nearly three-hour discussion also included an in-camera session of 90 minutes, showing the contentiousness in the community over the heliport and flight-seeing tours.

The contract discussion began in early 2020 when council directed staff to meet with stakeholder groups for feedback. A survey sent to 22 organizations had 12 reply in a 58-day span as well as further discussions with four of the groups.

A more than two-hour virtual town hall was held May 4 and had 31 people present opposition or support for the contentious issue.

Though roughly two-thirds spoke against the noise, several people voiced support for Alpine and its longstanding relationship in the community. Multiple pilots for the flight-seeing tours expressed concern over how further changes would impact their careers and advancing to become a rescue pilot.

Todd Cooper, the base manager for Alpine in Canmore and the Stoney Nakoda Casino, said the town hall had a “fair amount of miscommunication” from opponents, such as unscientific figures from the decibel noise, the claim the amount of helicopters had steadily increased and there was unnecessary idling aircraft.

In 2019, Alpine did 201 rescues and 161 last year, according to statistics provided at the Heliport Monitoring Committee in April.

Town staff updated council at a committee of the whole meeting on April 20. The Heliport Monitoring Committee also met April 28 to receive the annual 2020 report from Alpine, which discussed new technology being installed to reduce some noise. However, new technology or equipment first needs to be approved by Transport Canada and the helicopter’s manufacturer, leading to longer install times.

The committee also discussed previous ideas to reduce noise, such as planting trees and a transparent barrier, but both had flaws and were unable to be implemented.

The existing contract allows a maximum of 60 tourism-based flights a day. The proposed contract would have brought it down to no more than 45 a day, while also submitting data such as fuel use and flight data to the Town when requested – but continue to be confidential to the public.

Alpine has previously stated it has voluntarily stopped 12-minute flights and is doing 20 minutes or longer.

The proposed contract brought to council was recommended for 10 years and would’ve brought roughly $127,000 a year to the Town. Flight-seeing tours would also only be allowed from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Frank Liszczak, a member of the Bow Valley Helicopter Noise Alliance, said the group was “heartened” council had heard residents' concerns in doing further negotiations to reduce the number of flight-seeing tours and possibly increasing the length of those flights.

He said the local grassroots organization, which was formed in 2018, is optimistic further work can be done between town staff and Alpine.

Liszczak noted the group, which has emphasized it's not anti-helicopter and recognizes the importance of having the services for rescue operations, was further encouraged by council having staff look at possibly relocating the heliport. With the provincial and federal governments footing the bill for rescues and wildfire management, he also said there’s hope they will become more involved in the discussion.

“We don’t have a lot of land that town council can utilize for issues like vital housing and that’s been a struggle for generations. … It can be a win-win situation," he said. "Alpine could get a different location where they’re not bugged by residents, the residents would get the noise out of their way and the Town would have acres of land freed up for alternative uses.”