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Napa County Board of Supervisors Says Initiative Banning Private Helipads Needs Further Study

by Kerana Todorov
February 02, 2018

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to study an initiative that could ban private helipads and airports in Napa County.

The matter came before the board after the initiative had enough signatures to qualify for the June 5 election. Under election rules, the Board of Supervisors could have adopted the measure outright Tuesday or immediately placed the “Initiative to Disallow the Use of Personal Airports and Helipads” on the ballot.

The Board of Supervisors will revisit the matter Feb. 10.

The initiative does not affect commercial helicopter landings on private properties. These are already banned in Napa County, where only a handful of helipads have been built over the past five decades.

The latest debate over private helipads began more than three years ago after Christian Palmaz asked for a use permit to build one at his family winery east of Napa, where the Palmaz family owns about 640 acres.

On Tuesday, Palmaz’ attorney, Brian Russell, of Abbott & Kinderman Inc., called the initiative “unnecessary” and “ill conceived.”

“We have some grace concerns regarding the legality of the initiative as well as some real questions regarding unintended consequences of this proposal,” Russell also told the Board of Supervisors.

One of the sponsors, George Caloyannidi, of Calistoga, said the initiative would put an end to personal-use helicopter landings. He was instrumental in having a county ordinance passed to prohibit helicopters landings at wineries, he said. “This is no different,” Caloyannidi said.

On Thursday Palmaz cautioned that “a personal-use aircraft could mean something completely different” in the very near future.

“I think some people are a little bit concerned of the side effect of this initiative,” Palmaz said. “What does that mean for Amazon to be able to come and drop off a package,” he said. “I don’t think that has been well thought through,” he said of the initiative.

The application for the proposed helipad project was filed in 2014. The project was studied before being presented to the Napa County Planning Commission which turned down the project on Sept. 6 after public hearings. Dozens of residents and others spoke at the hearings, most of whom opposed to the project.

Planning Commissioners cited a number of issues, including inconsistencies with the Napa County’s general plan, before voting against the helipad 4-1.

The Napa County Airport Land Use Commission voted against the application on Sept. 6.

The concerns raised at the public hearings and in dozens of letters and emails sent to Napa County officials included noise, safety, and pollution from helicopter use; a possible proliferation of private helipads in Napa County; and decline in property values.

Christian Palmaz, who flies his helicopter from Napa County Airport, and Russell stressed the helipad would not be used for commercial purposes. “The helicopter, to my family, is a productivity tool,” Palmaz said at a public hearing. “It allows us to more efficiently manage our five family-owned and operated companies more efficiently.”

Speakers who spoke against the project were skeptical.

“Really this isn’t a personal use,” said Lee Philipson, a St. Helena resident and attorney, speaking on behalf of a resident and his law firm, Farella Braun + Martel LLP. “This is a business purpose,” added the retired Napa County prosecutor. “This is all about business and enhancing the Palmaz businesses,” he added, referring to the helicopter. “This is not to transport the children to let’s say Silverado Middle School – or some other school. This is for their business.”

“This is a ‘productivity’ tool, to use his terms,” Philipson said, referring to Palmaz’ public remarks. It is to manage his businesses that employ 600 people, he added, citing Palmaz’ testimony.

Back in September at a public hearing, Vintner Warren Winiarski spoke against the project, recalling turmoil during the establishment of the agricultural preserve in 1968. He questioned who would be monitoring who gets on the aircraft.

Staff had recommended approving the project after a number of studies found the helipad would not cause significant impacts if it were built on the Palmaz’ Mount George property. Under the proposed use permit, the helicopter would be allowed up to four landings and take-offs a week.

The Amalia Palmaz Living Trust/Amalia Palmaz Trustee appealed the commissions’ decision to turn down the permit application. The matter was scheduled to come before the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 19. The Board of Supervisors, however, re-set the hearing for July 10 after Palmaz and staff requested a continuance.

At the same time, residents collected enough signatures for the initiative to qualify the measure for the June 5 ballot.

“I think the intention of the ballot initiative was to stop our project from ever seeing the Supervisors’ chambers ever again,” Palmaz said Thursday.

In the meantime, Palmaz can fly his helicopter to the family’s ranch in Plumas County after having received a permit from that county. However a group of neighbors have filed suit over the issuance of the permit.

On Tuesdsay, The Napa County Board of Supervisors also ordered a review of two other initiatives – one to protect watersheds and oak woodland acres and the other, to allow Blakeley Construction to continue near Calistoga. All three studies are due to return for consideration on Feb. 10.

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