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Residents voice concern over heliport lease as town hall nears

“I don't really see any benefits to the larger community for these flightseeing tours. It just doesn't make sense that our quality of life should be affected to this degree.”

CANMORE – An upcoming town hall will give residents an additional chance to be heard when it comes to helicopter noise coming in and out of the Canmore Municipal Heliport.

But after Town council received an update at its monthly committee of the whole meeting April 20, a local grassroots organization is asking for more to be done before a lease is signed.

The Bow Valley Helicopter Noise Alliance, which was formed in 2018, has been vocal in its concerns to reduce tourism-based helicopter flights, diminish greenhouse gas emissions and the noise that comes from the heliport in a largely residential area since first being built in the 1980s.

“The real crux here is that there's been major changes in this community in the last 30 years,” said Don Heinz, a member of the group who first became involved in issues with the heliport during the 2011 lease negotiations. “A small little heliport was advantageous for some rescue and firefighting, but the Town is adamant in maintaining that space.”

With the virtual town hall set for May 4 at 6 p.m., the group is pushing for more changes before anything is agreed to between the Town and Alpine Helicopters Inc.

“They're a good company, they've got good pilots and a good track record for safety,” said Frank Liszczak, another group member. “But the Town has to step up and do its job in balancing this issue. I don't think this proposal goes anywhere near to creating a long-term solution.”

The group emphasizes it is not anti-helicopter, but its submission raised concerns about the heliport’s location, lack of data providing unclear information on flight volumes, noise volumes, environmental issues and the effect on wildlife.

Administration presented council information on the terms of the lease, which is still being negotiated. The existing 10-year lease will wrap-up on Nov. 30 and discussion for a renewal began in 2020 after Alpine Helicopters Inc. asked for a new 10-year agreement.

Alpine also conducts rescue missions from the Canmore Heliport and did 161 last year after completing 201 in 2019.

Town council directed staff in 2020 to meet with stakeholder groups to gain perspectives on residents’ concerns.

A survey was sent to 22 area groups by Town staff and received feedback from 12 during a 58-day span. Four of the groups also requested additional interviews with the committee.

Stephen Hanus, the Town’s manager of facilities, noted the feedback for the Heliport Monitoring Committee was diverse, as aspects received little to no feedback and others were more contentious.

According to the report, there was either none or little feedback with it came to regulations, flight departure and approach paths and the fly neighbourly program. However, concerns with sightseeing operations, the level of noise and issues with greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife disturbance were heard.

The report highlighted there was mixed feedback on many topics such as the location of the heliport. There were also those who urged better alignment of the heliport's operations with the Town’s Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and report better data for more information.

“The feedback received was as diverse as the stakeholder groups, especially as it related to sightseeing operations, with some indicating that sightseeing flights should be reduced and/or eliminated while others support the economic benefits and unique visitor experience sightseeing flights provide,” the staff report to council stated.

“There was support for commercial operations and emergency services. Stakeholders identified concerns including air quality, greenhouse gas reduction, and wildlife disturbance.”

According to the report, the Town will receive about $125,500 this year in revenue from leasing the site. Hanus said the terms of the new lease are still being negotiated and figures are unknown for a new agreement.

At the municipal level, leases are rarely discussed publicly to this extent, but a high amount of concern by residents have led to the unusual approach.

Todd Cooper, the base manager for Alpine Helicopters Inc. in Canmore and at the Stoney Nakoda Casino, called it a “very thorough process” between the two parties.

“We’ve worked hard with the Town of Canmore and the administration to get to what [the proposed contract] looks like now and we look forward going into the future. … We’ll continue to be good neighbours.”

The draft terms of the new lease will have slight changes to some factors, but create several new categories such as noise reduction, wildlife and recreational disturbance guide, climate action, air quality and an annual report.

Hanus told council Alpine Helicopters has committed to not having 12-minute flights this summer in Canmore.

The maximum tourism flights allowed is proposed to be reduced from 60 to 45 a day and a minimum of 20 minute flights, where the previous was 12 minutes.

Cooper said they voluntarily scaled back the 12-minute flights to no less than 20 minutes after hearing from residents.

“We did that proactively on our own. We are listening to the community and we heard what people were saying and we did that to reduce the number of flights that actually originated from the Canmore Heliport. We want to be good neighbours.”

While a 25 per cent reduction in flights is being proposed, Liszczak contends it’s “smoke and mirrors.”

Dale Stanway, another group member, said rather than look at the daily flights, an annual look is a better analysis. Under the proposed agreement, he said it would still allow for nearly 33,000 take-off and landings.

“It's a tough problem for council because there's positive aspects related to emergency. Most people in town don't mind if a helicopter goes over to save somebody’s life. What they do object to is the number of flights.”

The group is recommending either eliminating flight-seeing tours or drastically reducing the tourism-based flights to no more than 15 a day and 750 a year, with all being 25 minutes or more.

The group also asked for a lease of between three to five years to allow for more adjustments and for Alpine to use equipment that reduces noise. During the April 28 Heliport Monitoring Committee, the 2020 annual report from Alpine listed the helicopters received a new set of main rotor blades in 2019 and upgraded their tail rotor blades to reduce noise. The report noted they would also implement "practical new technology as it becomes available."

Cooper said they're continuing to look for new equipment, but everything has to be approved by Transport Canada and the helicopter's manufacturing.

"It's not very easy to go out and find products that help us. It's also rather expensive in a lot of cases to implement some of the changes."

Alpine also proposed in 2019 to planting trees around the heliport last year to reduce noise, but the Town determined the trees wouldn't survive long due to the type of soil following the 2013 flood. Cooper told the committee he'd researched a heliport in Switzerland using a transparent barrier around the heliport to mitigate sound, but it led birds flying into the wall and the sound being reflected back.

Liszczak, an urban planner, also noted if the heliport were moved, the land could be repurposed for affordable housing, or an RV park.

Members argue the lack of information – such as flight data, fuel use and the economic effect for bringing money to Canmore – needs to be more available for analysis.

While the public release of information has been contentious, Cooper noted it’s proprietary information under the terms of the 2011 contract and doesn’t have to be released.

Under the new proposed deal, the data would be released to the Town when requested, but the majority of it would remain confidential.

Following the May town hall, staff will bring back a proposed lease on June 2 for council to decide.

“I don't really see any benefits to the larger community for these flight-seeing tours,” Liszczak said. “It just doesn't make sense that our quality of life should be affected to this degree.”

People can visit www.canmore.ca/heliport for more information on the town hall.