Helicopter buzzes up alarm on Pender
The North Pender Local Trust Committee is seeking a different approach to personal aircraft use in the Islands Trust region after a helicopter and landing pad in a residential area stirred up community opposition on their island.
The LTC voted March 25 to draft a letter to Transport Canada that raises the problems with how aviation is currently being regulated. Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May has additionally written to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra urging an investigation into local safety concerns around new helicopter use off Pirates Road.
“The helipad has been built on the Pender Island Oak Bluffs, which is an area that is categorized as a highly sensitive ecosystem. The bluffs are habitat to several protected and endangered species, including eagles, falcons, hawks and turkey vultures. Pender Island residents have expressed their concern regarding the well-being of the island’s avian and other wildlife,” May explained in her letter to Alghabra.
Additional concerns have been raised about possible increases to disturbance of other wildlife, including southern resident killer whales, which have been given a temporary sanctuary zone below the bluffs, risk of wildfire and increased noise in a quiet neighbourhood.
“The goal of the motion is hopefully the federal government will properly regulate aeronautics in the Trust Area … because right now it’s a free-for-all, and it’s really disrupting people’s lives,” said trustee Ben McConchie.
Pirates Road property owner and helicopter pilot Mike Quinn feels community members have overblown the actual situation. He said social media started going into overdrive even before he brought his machine in, when word got out that he was clearing a small piece of his acreage for a landing pad.
“There’s been a concerted effort by a small number of people to make this a big deal,” Quinn said. “It’s really been blown out of proportion by a few people. I wish they would give it a chance before sending out the pitchfork brigade.”
In addition to acting in accordance with his rights and the law, Quinn said he has taken steps to mitigate the impact to local wildlife and his immediate neighbours.
In regard to fears the helicopter would disturb eagles and other raptors known to nest on the bluffs, Quinn explained he has created a flight path that stays away from the bluffs entirely. He flies in and out from the other end of his property and travels over Bedwell Harbour, not over the SRKW sanctuary side. As the founder of Whistler Air, he has 40 years’ experience flying into remote natural areas.
Quinn furthermore built the landing pad close to Pirates Road and further away from where people situate their houses on the bluffs. Although he doesn’t legally need to register his pad, he intends to go through that process with Transport Canada — including inspection by their staff — to prove there are no concerns.
Even with Quinn’s measures, though, some residents are not enjoying the addition to the neighbourhood. Michael Symons lives on the other side of Pirates Road, and the helicopter is visible during its approach to or from Bedwell Harbour.
“It’s kind of like having a truck with no muffler going back and forth over your home,” Symons said. “The problem is the acoustic cone is pointed down because of the rotors — all the noise is being directed toward the ground.”
Symons acknowledged that helicopter trips so far have been taking place only once or twice a week, but he is concerned they may become more frequent with warm weather and possibly more visitors arriving.
“I think this actually is just fully incompatible with the area. This area is really sort of exemplary of the values the Islands Trust was established to protect,” Symons said, adding that includes its rural nature, low density and value as wildlife habitat. “If the zoning laws are going to mean anything, the local body has to have some say-so in what types of things are permitted.”
“It’s early days but I guess people have been hoping some sort of government agency would step in and save the day. That doesn’t seem to be happening, so I guess some sort of community effort will be needed,” Symons added.
North Pender trustees have also expressed frustration with the regulatory environment.
“It seems to me that private helicopters right now, there’s essentially no regulations that control them outside of safety. There’s nothing about environmental protection or preservation,” said trustee Deb Morrison. “This is not acceptable to me. This situation is deeply unacceptable to me.”
Neighbouring South Pender has a bylaw that prohibits airports, airstrips and helicopter landing zones except for emergency transportation. However, it’s not certain this bylaw would stand up if challenged. In other communities, the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed the federal government department has the only say.
Islands Trust regional planning manager Robert Kojima said during the March 25 North Pender Local Trust Committee meeting the issue is similar to that of freighter anchorages, meaning the Islands Trust is largely limited to advocating for greater control of its jurisdiction and hoping the federal government will make changes. He noted such advocacy usually works better if more voices are involved.
The LTC intends to also bring the issue to the fledgling Southern Gulf Islands Forum, which connects elected officials from the various Islands Trust communities and the Capital Regional District with federal and provincial representatives.
“I really hope the helicopter pilot takes into consideration the community and his neighbours. So I hope that this advocacy can help start something, and help regulate aeronautics in the Southern Gulf Islands,” McConchie said.