OCEAN CITY – Less than a month after an unexpected private helicopter landing, the Ocean City Mayor and Council got their first look at an ordinance designed to prevent a repeat in the future.
On July 3, a private helicopter landed on a church parking lot at 17th Street and Philadelphia Avenue, discharged its passengers and took off again. The unexpected landing disrupted traffic in the area and generally created quite a stir for hundreds of motorists and pedestrians unaccustomed to a helicopter touching down in a densely populated resort area.
It was learned shortly after there is currently nothing specific in the town code preventing helicopter landings within town limits as long as the operator has permission of the property owner. In July’s case, the pilot apparently did have permission from the church and the lot in question was cleared in advance.
To that end, the council last month directed staff to begin crafting an ordinance prohibiting helicopters and other aircraft from landing within town limits. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) holds sway over aircraft operations, local jurisdictions have some authority to dictate where aircraft can be legally landed.
Ocean City Airport Manager Jaime Giandomenico presented the proposed ordinance during Tuesday’s work session.
“We met with the city solicitor and did some research and put together an ordinance loosely modeled after similar ordinances in Easton and St Michaels,” he said. “It certainly was disruptive and there were genuine potential safety issues.”
The proposed ordinance clearly prohibits landings anywhere on the densely-populated island.
“It is the purpose of this article to limit the landing of helicopters specifically, and any other aircraft in general, to areas that are equipped to safely accommodate such landings, such as the Ocean City Municipal Airport, and which are in areas sufficiently removed from residential zones to insure the safety of the residents and visitors to the town,” the proposed ordinance reads.
The proposed ordinance does allow for certain special circumstances during which a helicopter or other aircraft could be landed within town limits including an emergency. It also includes a provision for landing a helicopter or other aircraft in town with special permission from the council by resolution or special event permit on a case-by-case basis.
Councilman Dennis Dare questioned why the proposed ordinance did not include sections on potential fines for landing a helicopter or other aircraft within town limits.
“It doesn’t include any provisions about penalties,” he said. “Some sections of the code do and some don’t. Some have penalties ranging from $25 to $1,000. I don’t think a $25 fine would deter this cowboy.”
Giandomenico said he explored a potential fine schedule to attach to the ordinance, but ultimately it was the council’s decision. He said the fine would have to be significant enough to deter the activity.
“I looked at some and they have fines as high as $2,500,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is make this a permission fee.”
City Solicitor Heather Stansbury agreed the fine had to be commensurate with the violation. She said someone with the means to rent a helicopter might not be deterred by a small fine.
“If you’re inclined to rent a helicopter, I’m not sure what level of fine would be prohibitive,” she said.
Dare said the language in the proposed ordinance was specific only to landings.
“This prohibits landings of helicopters, but it doesn’t prevent the launch of a helicopter,” he said. “If you land and your $1,000 fine or whatever, you can take off again without a penalty. I think everywhere it says landing, it should also say launching.”
In terms of the proposed fine, Stansbury suggested the $2,500 number that had been tossed around might be appropriate.
“Whatever the town thinks would be preventative,” she said. “I think $2,500 seems like a reasonable amount. There could also be a provision that they will be reported to the FAA. That might be a bigger deterrent than a fine. What we don’t want them to do is pay the $2,500 as a permission fee.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he thought the ordinance as proposed was right to include all types of aircraft.
“I think we should come to expect the unexpected because it will happen,” he said. “I think this should say prevent any landing of an aircraft, manned or unmanned. I would hate for this to be not inclusive of things that could happen in two weeks. Tomorrow, something can happen and we’ll say we wish we thought of that.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight, who was on the scene when the helicopter landed in the church parking lot, agreed the ordinance should include the provision about notifying the FAA.
“I think it’s very important that we include that FAA statement,” she said. “The first thing out of that pilot’s mouth that day that he cleared it with the FAA and it was okay.”
The council directed staff to tweak the ordinance with the proposed changes and bring it back for review at the next work session.