Originally Published: September 11, 2018 6:27 p.m.
Bystanders were shushed in order to get an audio reading on the decibel level of a helicopter trainer at full throttle on the property of a proposed helicopter school in Dewey-Humboldt Friday, Sept. 7. The decibel meter picked up nearby conversational voices over the noise of the trainer’s blades on the vacant land adjacent to Highway 69.
Luis Pena, owner of the proposed Heli Swift Aviation School, brought a Cicare SVH4 flight trainer to the site at the request of the Town Council in order to ascertain the noise level of the equipment. Council and neighboring property owners had concerns about public safety, noise, dust, and distracted drivers along the highway.
The decibel meter indicated a reading of 78 dB at about 20 feet from the trainer, and about the same as the meter moved in a close circle around the equipment. At the gate to the property at 2845 S. Highway 69 off Omega Drive, the reading was 68 dB, and 64 dB behind the fencing.
To put this in perspective, Barrie Clark, who operated one of the two decibel readers, said a nearby diesel pick-up truck at idle registered 78 dB. Clark and others noted that semi-trucks on Highway 69 at the western border of the property using “jake brakes” created more noise than the helicopter trainer.
The town Planning and Zoning Commission at its May 3 meeting, discussed Pena’s application for a use permit and suggested a noise level that does not exceed 90 dB.
The proposed school will offer an affordable means to aviation training involving basic fundamentals taught in the classroom, and flight trainer experience, the application states. The trainer will be kept inside a metal building until students are ready, at which time, the trainer will be moved outdoors to a 60-foot diameter concrete slab.
Pena filed for a use permit with the town in March for the property, which is zoned C-3 (commercial and minor industrial) and allows trade schools. Such a use falls within the town’s General Plan. Because the C-3 zoning district abuts R-1 residential zoning across the street to the east, the proposed school needs a use permit.
Property to the north, zoned C-2 Commercial, is vacant. To the south, zoned C-3, is JT’s Sanitation, a company that pumps septic systems and cesspools. Highway 69 borders the west side of the property and property on the other side of the highway is vacant and zoned M-2 Industrial. Property to the east, zoned residential, is a combination of vacant properties and three single-family homes.
At the March 28 public participation meeting, one neighbor attended; the P&Z minutes do not reflect whether this person was in favor or opposed. At the May 3 P&Z meeting, three residents spoke against the school citing “safety issues,” noise, road maintenance, and disturbance of the peaceful atmosphere.
Gary Nece, who owns property and hopes to build on it in the future, in the 2600 block of South Omega Drive, opposes the school as he stated in an April 25 email to the P&Z. His objections include distracted drivers along Highway 69 that would cause crashes and lawsuits for the town, noise pollution, and decreased property values. He said flight simulators and virtual reality technology could provide better training.
After discussion, an unspecified commissioner made a motion not to recommend the use permit to the council because, “I don’t see as much support for this application as against it.” The motion passed with a 4-1 vote; the minutes do not reflect the identity of the nay vote.
The May 15 Town Council meeting summary lists three residents who spoke about the same concerns. Council members requested that Pena bring the equipment to town and set up a demonstration to measure the noise level.
At Friday’s demonstration, the helicopter trainer sat on a base on a trailer, less than two feet off the ground, with its engine at full throttle. Once built on a permanent concrete pad, the trainer, tethered at all times, can rise three feet off the ground to give the “real” experience of lifting off, said Kirk Brawner, general contractor.
The trainer allows “full and safe use of all flight controls including lift off to a normal hover at three feet above ground level,” the Cicare website states. “It virtually eliminates the accident risk for students and instructors during the early training stages as well as protecting helicopters from wear/tear and damage.”
Mayor Terry Nolan yelled at the crowd of about 30 to quiet down in order to get a decibel reading from the trainer as it started up.
“If you can’t hear it over people speaking, I don’t know what the issue is,” Brawner said.
Pena, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan, said a helicopter pilot saved his life, and opening this school is a way he can pay back his country. He attended Yavapai College, Guidance Aviation, and North-Aire Aviation, earning a commercial airplane license and acquiring 2,000 flight hours. He currently is studying for his commercial helicopter license.
Pena said he has invested his family’s life savings in this project. The Prescott Valley resident intends to offer two annual scholarships — one to a Dewey-Humboldt student and one to a student from the Quad Cities. In addition, he will contribute to road maintenance of Omega Drive, a private road.
“Most of the neighbors were ill-informed,” he said at the demonstration.
A 75-foot by 40-foot steel metal building for administration and classrooms will be situated between the pad and Omega Drive and residents, thus providing additional screening and noise abatement. Up to 12 students will be present from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays; however, Pena anticipates operating the trainer for about three to five hours per day.
Pena also agreed to comply with monthly monitoring of noise levels every month for six months in the first year and annually thereafter.
Town Manager Tom Wilson described plans for placing gravel 10 meters surrounding the pad, with more gravel and vegetation in the open space to cut down on dust. Fencing will be provided around the pad and another perimeter fence at the exterior of the property with landscaping to buffer noise.
Council member Doug Treadway said he came to the demonstration with an open mind.
“I said at the council meeting that if it passed an agreeable decibel level for residents, I would support it,” he said. The town has no specific decibel levels listed in its ordinances or noise policy, he added.
Council member Mark McBrady, also present, said Monday, Sept. 10, he is still thinking about it; he planned to meet with the neighbors Tuesday.
Lynn Collins, incoming council member, said one of the clauses in the town code mentions proposed use permits need to be supported by the neighborhood. Her decision will depend on “what the folks think about it. They’re the ones who have the decision in this.”
The request for use permit is expected to come back for approval on a future council agenda.