OCEAN CITY — An unanticipated private helicopter landing on a downtown church parking lot last week had resort officials this week exploring ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Last Tuesday, on the eve of the Fourth of July holiday, a private helicopter landed on the St. Mary Star of the Sea’s parking lot at 17th Street and Philadelphia Avenue, discharged its passengers and took off again. The unexpected landing disrupted traffic in the and generally created quite a stir for hundreds of motorists and pedestrians unaccustomed to a helicopter touching down in a densely populated resort area.
However, there is currently nothing specific in the town code preventing helicopter landings within town limits as long as the operator has the permission of the property owner. In last week’s case, the pilot apparently did have permission from the church and the lot in question was cleared in advance.
A week later, the Mayor and Council took up the issue during Tuesday’s work session and learned there was currently not anything specific on the books to prevent a repeat in the future, although it could be regulated by the town through zoning or an ordinance change. City Manager Doug Miller explained the situation to the Mayor and Council.
“On the third of July, a helicopter landed at the church on 17th Street,” he said. “Apparently, the pilot had the permission from the property owner to do so. Because this is a very unique issue for us, we need to know what our legal rights were and were not.”
Ocean City Muncipal Airport Manager Jaime Giandomenico said last Tuesday’s landing did not appear to violate any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, but there was reason for concern. He didn’t recommend seeking punitive action against the pilot, but said the town should explore possible changes to its zoning code or ordinances.
“The landing was pre-coordinated with the property owner,” he said. “There really weren’t any FAA rules that were broken, and I don’t think it would be worthwhile to pursue any particular action.”
Giandomenico said it was incumbent on the town’s elected officials to determine a direction going forward.
“The question for the Mayor and Council moving forward is how we want to handle this in the future,” he said. “Obviously, it was disruptive and there wasn’t any prior coordination with the town. I think the police and fire departments responded and on that ramp-up to the holiday it was pretty disruptive and not well thought out.”
Giandomenico explained there was not a whole lot on the books and the pilot technically did not break any rules.
“In terms of the city, there is no existing language that specifically prohibits that kind of activity,” he said. “The operator probably saw there was no specific prohibition and assumed it was okay to proceed with the flight, which brings us back to how we want to move forward.”
The question, according to Giandomenico, is how the town wants to proceed.
“We have broad authority through zoning and with ordinances to regulate that kind of activity in town,” he said. “Anything from a full prohibition across the board to enacting nothing and leaving it the way it is or anything in between. For you, the question is do you want to prohibit that en masse or craft some kind of ordinance that allows it with restrictions or leave it as it is. I would caution against the latter because we obviously have a case of an uncoordinated activity downtown.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said there is little reason to put a helicopter down near a crowded highway in the height of the summer season.
“We have an airport close by and when you’re flying it’s right over there,” he said. “I do think it’s disruptive and not safe, and I think we ought to do something about it.”
Councilman Matt James asked if the FAA regulations were specific about helicopter landings in densely-populated areas. Giandomenico said there were, but the rules were somewhat subject to interpretation with different variables.
“The rule of thumb for helicopters is 1.3 times the rotor diameter,” he said. “I looked at the site and I don’t think you could consider it careless or reckless. It was a little tight. It would not have been my first choice.”
Giandomenico said there were parts of the FAA regulations the town could consider.
“The FAA has a design guide that sets the standards for commercial helipads,” he said. “It’s advisory in nature and it’s very elaborate. There is some useful information in there, but I don’t know if I would adopt it as a whole.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
“I think we all agree the way it happened was very disruptive, but I wouldn’t want to do something that is totally restrictive either,” he said. “There may be buildings in the future that would want to have a helipad or something that might be high enough in the air or a big enough area to allow it. I’d like to see you get together with zoning and emergency management and come back with something that prohibits something that is disruptive on a downtown street, but not so restrictive that we couldn’t have a helicopter land in Ocean City somewhere safe in the future.”
Hartman made a motion to have Giandomenico sit down with the zoning department and emergency management to develop and appropriate strategy moving forward. However, Councilman Dennis Dare said he couldn’t support that motion.
“I don’t think there is any need for a heliport when we have an airport within minutes of town,” he said. “I disagree with the FAA interpretation. The way I read it is you need 35 feet on either side of the landing zone and a 300-foot strip on either side of the landing zone. I don’t think there is anywhere in Ocean City that meets those provisions, maybe Northside Park or maybe on one of the taller buildings.”
Dare further commented he believed last week’s situation should have been handled differently.
“I think the pilot was irresponsible,” he said. “I think he put not only his life in danger, but also the lives of his passengers and the lives of hundreds on the ground in that area.”
Dare drew from personal experience about flying in helicopters in and around town, much less landing one.
“When I was the city engineer, the state police medevac pilot was my neighbor and he used to take me to survey storm damage to see what shape we were in and he was scared to death to fly in Ocean City in the summer,” he said. “A 99-cent spool of string tied to a kite will bring down a helicopter quicker than a stinger missile. It’s dangerous to fly here. That’s why the banner planes have an exception to fly as low as they do as long as they are far enough offshore.”
Dare said the helicopter should have been grounded after it landed on the church parking lot and not allowed to take off again.
“I think the pilot should have been cited,” he said. “I also think the helicopter should have been put on a flat-bed and driven out of town and not allowed to take off and endanger people. With our density, it’s a no-brainer for me.”
Dare explained the extreme safety precautions in place for even a medevac helicopter landing in an emergency.
“Whenever the medevac comes in, the fire and police departments respond in case there is an emergency,” he said. “And that’s a designated area with the proper clearance and a wind sock to determine wind direction and all of these other precautions.”
Dare did agree an ordinance or zoning change could achieve the town’s desired result and leave wiggle room for special exceptions in the future.
“I think through an ordinance or possibly zoning, we can keep this from happening in the future,” he said. “The ordinance can even say you can get an exception to this so if somebody came in and wanted to put a landing zone on top of a condo, for example, they could apply and it could be evaluated.”
Giandomenico said the discussion was appropriate because of last week’s incident.
“The ordinance has been status quo for many years and this is the first time it bubbled up,” he said. “It might be indicative of more demand for this activity in the future. There is a possibility to consider a moratorium for the short term until we sort this out.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said she observed the impromptu take off last week and agreed the situation needed to be addressed.
“I was there when it took off and emergency management had to stop traffic,” she said. “There was a concern about the rotors kicking up dust and debris. With the airport just minutes away, I just don’t think there is a need for it.”
Martin said the town’s regulations on helicopter landings were muddy at best and needed to be clarified.
“There is no allowable zone for helicopter landings right now, but there is no language that says you can’t,” he said. “We need to look into this and we need to take care of this. We might see more and more of this, or it might not happen again. It was disruptive when it came in, especially when it comes in over the beach and his throwing up sand.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said the demand already appears to be increasing.
“I think the frequency will increase,” he said. “I’ve had two requests to land helicopters on the garage where I live and the association denied it. It was built to support that and there is plenty of room, but we told them no.”
The council voted unanimously to have the airport manager get together with the zoning administration and emergency management to come back with alternatives to address the issue.