News & Events

Date: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Item: Heliskiing gets 3 year temporary approval

Teton Springs Heliski Amendment

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*CLICK HERE* TO REVIEW THE NOVEMBER 15, 2012 MEETING REPORT. 

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What's Happening?  Since 2002, High Mountain Heli has been informally operating a heliskiing business out of Teton Springs. In response to a public complaint in 2004, Teton County issued a cease and desist letter terminating the operation. The commercial operation eventually resumed again within a few years, and now Teton Springs would like to legitimize it into a permanent wintertime commercial business.  Last December 2011, the Board of County Commissioners issued a  temporary use permit for a one-year "trial season". After the 2011-2012 trial season ended, the County Commissioners held a hearing on September 13, 2012 to consider granting permanent approval of the commercial helisking operation at Teton Springs with 560 flights per season from December 25-April 1 of each year.  In seeking permanent approval, Teton Springs has requested that flight hours be extended from 9am-5pm, with up to 14 flights per day. They have also requested that an alternative helipad site be established on the lawn in front of the Teton Springs lodge.

What happened at the September 13, 2012 hearing? At the September hearing, the Board of County Commissioners tabled the application for permanent approval until November 15, 2012 and requested additional information from Teton Springs such an approval from the Teton Springs HOA, a map of the exact location of the eagle nest, installation of GPS flight trackers on the helicopters, and an agreement to review all of the proposed commercial uses in Teton Springs by June 2013. The Commissioners also recommended 15 additional conditions that would be required as a precondition to approval. In a November 2, 2012 letter submitted to Teton County, Teton Springs agreed to some of these conditions and has objected to others. (See bullets below for explanation.) These new materials will now be reviewed at the November 15, 2012 hearing. 

What is VARD's Position?  The discussion here is NOT about whether or not heliskiing is beneficial to the local economy, but whether this particular location is appropriate for this commercial use. Is it possible to safely and effectively mitigate the impacts of this commercial use on the surrounding residents and wildlife?  There are many economic benefits from permitting this kind of tourism-based use.  And from many perspectives, a 4-season resort may be one of the best locations to host this type of high-impact commercial/tourist use. That said, Teton Springs is not purely a resort community. It also includes a growing number of year round residents who purchased homes in what they expected to be a quiet, residential, planned community. In addition, many others own vacant lots in Teton Springs who see their ownership as an investment for resale. Thus, the economic interests and impacts of all these divergent property owners is often at odds. Responsible development requires carefully considering the long-term risks, benefits, and impacts that arise when operating a commercial flight operation in a semi-residential community.

Here are some of the outstanding issues that still need to be resolved:

  1. Additional Commercial Uses: Since first being approved in 2000, the plat for Teton Springs has been amended 17 times. Many of these plat changes involved the addition of commercial lots and commercial uses into Teton Springs that are not necessarily covered in the Teton Springs development agreement. County Attorney Kathy Spitzer has expressed concern with these amendments and has requested Teton Springs to agree to a "review" of all the plat amendments and commercial uses planned for the development. Teton Springs has expressed a willingness to have their development agreement reviewed, but they have objected to it being a precondition of approval for a commercial helipad.
  2. Noise and Pollution: This winter, several residents of Teton Springs living in close proximity to the helipad filed complaints to Teton County regarding the noise and pollution impacts from the helicopters. High Mountain Heli has assured Teton County that the Bell 407 helicopters that are used produce zero emissions and do not generate noise levels above 90 decibels. This conflict remains unresolved.
  3. Flying off Course: Several Teton Springs residents also filed complaints reporting that the helicopters did not follow the promised flight path last year and flew in close proximity to homes and a nearby Bald Eagle nest. At the September 13, 2012 hearing, the Board of County Commissioners imposed a condition that GPS tracking units be installed on the helicopters in order to keep track of their flight paths. Teton Springs has objected to this precondition, because installing GPS units would be cost prohibitive and time consuming. 
  4. Bald Eagle Nest: There is a bald eagle nest Southwest of the helipad site. At the September hearing, Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) reported that although the nest has been successful in years past, the eaglets in this nest died for the 3rd season in a row this winter, during the heliski season. Eagles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act. IDFG recommended the nest be mapped and a 0.5mi protective buffer be established around it. Thus, as a condition of approval, the Commissioners required the location of the nest to be mapped with the buffer as recommended by IDFG. In a Nov 2, 2012 letter to Teton County, Teton Springs agreed that if the helicopter flight path fell within 0.5mi of the nest, their commercial operation would cease. The nest has now been mapped, and the flight paths do overlap within the 0.5mi buffer. This conflict will need to be addressed. 
  5. No further review: One last issue to consider here is that last winter's "trial season" was a very slow year. High Mountain Heli flew 138 flights, which is 25% of the total number of flights allowed under the temporary permit that is now up for permanent approval. Teton Springs is a residential community that is only 27% built out right now.  Even with such a low housing occupancy, there have already been numerous complaints from residents citing adverse impacts from one season of helicopter flights - even when only 25% of the allowed flights were used last year. If permanent approval is granted for 560 flights a year, there will be no additional review, even if the cumulative impacts from those flights becomes unmanageable for the growing number of residents moving into Teton Springs and this residential community continues to fill in over the next several years. Would a temporary seasonal approval be the better way to proceed instead of granting permanent approval in an evolving residential community?
  6. Confusion regarding the HOA approval. The Board of of County Commissioners has been concerned about whether or not this commercial use has been approved by the homeowners of Teton Springs. (See discussion in bullet #5 above). Because of this concern, when the 1-year temporary use permit was granted in 2011, the County Commissioners imposed a condition that Teton Springs submit vote results from the four Teton Springs Home Owners Associations prior to renewing their permit. An anonymous ballot was submitted to the County Commissioners at the September 13, 2012 hearing. The Commissioners did not think this constituted a legitimate vote of the 4 HOAs and thus requested a written statement from the HOA attorney and HOA president representing all lot owners that the proposed operation is compatible with all applicable HOA CC&R's within Teton Springs. The HOA's attorney issued a letter on October 31, 2012, which was inconclusive at to whether the use complied with the CC&R's. The letter also outline procedural concerns with how some of the 17 previous plat amendments had been effectuated by Teton Springs.
Next Hearing is Scheduled for Thursday, November 15th The hearing will be held at 5:40pm on Thursday, November 15th at the Teton County Courthouse in Driggs.

To review our September 4, 2012 comment letter: CLICK HERE

To review our November 5, 2012 comment letter:  CLICK HERE (11mgb Download)

CLICK HERE to review all of the most current application materials on Teton County's website, including the November 2, 2012 letter from Teton Springs, the map of the eagle nest, the formal letter from Teton Springs HOA, as well as comment letters from the public, Teton Springs residents, Idaho Fish & Game, and other agencies.

Want to learn more about the history of this particular heliskiing use at Teton Springs?  CLICK HERE to review our coverage of last year's hearing to grant the Temporary Use Permit for this heliski operation, and background information on the history of this heliskiing operation at Teton Springs. 

Here is a picture of the helipad site used last winter.

Teton_Springs_Helipad

This is the newly proposed alternative site East of the Teton Springs Lodge

Alt Helipad Site 

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Teton Valley Advocates

Teton Valley Advocates

Teton Valley Advocates