Signs calling for a ban on recreational helicopters have popped up all over North Pender Island in response to one resident’s use of a personal helicopter that comes and goes from his property.
Neighbours of the rural residential community near Oak Bluffs say they’re concerned the helicopter is disturbing nesting eagles and other wildlife, poses a safety risk and potential fire hazard, and could affect their property values.
“It’s definitely in conversation everywhere I go,” said North Pender Island trustee Deb Morrison, adding while there’s widespread opposition not everyone is opposed to the recreational use of helicopters.
Both the local trust committee and Elizabeth May, who is running for re-election to represent the area as a Green Party MP, have written to Transport Canada asking for stronger regulations and an investigation into safety concerns.
The Oak Bluffs are characterized as a highly sensitive ecosystem, with protected and endangered species, Laura Patrick, chair of the North Pender Island Local Trust Committee, wrote in a letter to Transport Canada. The letter asked for consideration of environmental impacts and the “rural character of the community.”
“Residents have spoken out about their concern regarding excessive aircraft noise and traffic over this part of the island. Many have reported the shaking of structures within their homes due to regular overhead helicopter travel,” May wrote.
Complicating the matter is that while Transport Canada is the body that regulates helicopters, the agency says the environmental concerns raised do not fall under its jurisdiction.
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra responded to concerns in an email to May’s office, saying “in reviewing this location, there are no issues from an aviation safety perspective.”
Alghabra said the federal agency does not regulate the location of private helipads if they’re not in “built-up areas,” and he referred environmental concerns to B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, which told May’s office it was not within their jurisdiction.
Residents and local trustees feel the issue is falling through the cracks.
“We have a beautiful spot in the Gulf Islands, and it is being altered to some degree … by an individual who nobody has any local control over,” said Chris Roper, who lives next door to the Pirates Road property.
Roper said if he’s inside his home with the windows closed, he’s not disturbed by the aircraft, but when in the yard, “it’s annoyingly loud.” He said he’s seen deer running and birds flying away when the helicopter fires up.
Roper would like to see personal aircraft limited to a centralized location with safety precautions in place.
The North Pender Local Trust Committee is exploring ways to restrict recreational helicopter use on the island within its mandate. They passed a motion to draft a bylaw that would require residents to consult with the community for approval before they’re able to create a landing pad and fly a helicopter recreationally, Morrison said.
She said as the cost of properties on Pender Island rises, bringing in a wealthier crowd, there’s concern that without regulation there could be more private aircraft flying to and from the island.
Helicopter pilot Mike Quinn said he only flies about one round trip per week from his Pirates Road property, and the noise from take off and landing lasts about a minute and a half while he’s within ear shot of his neighbours. There’s no evidence the bird population is disrupted by his flight, he said.
“The guy’s chainsaw makes more noise in one afternoon than I do in the whole year,” Quinn said.
Quinn, who owned and operated Whistler Air for nearly 30 years, said he’s not breaking any rules. His approach and departure path, right over the water, is safe and approved, he said. He feels those opposed “just don’t like helicopters.”
The push back from his neighbours is now becoming harassment, he said, with residents calling multiple levels of government, the fire department and the RCMP to his property.
“They all agree that there’s no issues here, but they have to act because they have these complaints. So it’s really harassment now,” he said.
The local trust committee will seek community feedback on a draft aircraft bylaw, part of a full review of land use bylaws, before adoption, likely in the spring.