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The Right to Privacy

Privacy has many faces

Archived Thursday, August 14, 2008

The White County NEWS

A town divided - Helicopter debate heats up in Helen

by Kristen Mangum

About 100 people attended a public meeting about the helicopter business in Helen on Tuesday, Aug. 12.
White County News

A city is at odds, and a helicopter tour business marks the dividing line.

At the request of Eric McMillan, owner of Scenic Helicopter Tours in Helen, a public meeting was held in the city Tuesday, Aug. 12.

Approximately 100 people filled the Helen City Commission chambers at city hall.

Each person wishing to speak had three minutes to voice their opinion on the helicopter business, which began operations in the city earlier this year. Some exceeded their three-minute allotment.

Delbert Greear, who had attended previous commission meetings to voice his opposition of the business, was the first to speak.

“Enough is enough,” he said, adding that Helen is a “noise-sensitive area” and that he would continue to protest until the helicopter operation ceased.

When asked by Helen Mayor David Greear how many times on any given Saturday he sees or hears the helicopter, Delbert Greear said about 40 to 50 times. He said the helicopter flies 500 to 600 feet above his home in Helen.

Others, like Nancy Greear, said she was “very much opposed” to the business.

“The noise is devastating and the invasion of privacy unacceptable,” she said.

She noted her residence was in the “direct path” of the helicopter, which she said often flies over at five-minute intervals and many times late at night.

Nancy Greear also briefly mentioned environmental impacts and revealed that New York stopped allowing helicopter flights around the Statue of Liberty.

“I think if they're too noisy for New York, then they're too noisy for us,” she said.

“We are too small. This area's too congested. It's totally unacceptable.”

Helen resident Teressa Holtzclaw called the business “intolerable.”

Holtzclaw accused McMillan of making threats and bullying.

“I wish Mr. McMillan success,” she said. “In another line of business.”

Holtzclaw's address was met with both applause and jeers from the big crowd in attendance.

For every complaint, there was a positive remark about McMillan's business.

Helen businessman Art Connor told commissioners he was “personally glad that we have a helicopter tour in town. It has been a plus for my customers, a plus for the activities that I can direct them to.”

“And I can honestly say that I have never heard of so many people hearing so well,” he said.

“I hear the helicopter occasionally, I hear motorcycles occasionally, I hear trucks occasionally, I hear drunks walking down the street occasionally.”

“Correct me if I'm wrong, but are we a tourist town as we advertise ourselves, or are we a bedroom community of some mystical place?” Connor asked.

David Greear told Connor he did not believe “there was a single person in this room that he needed to remind that we're a tourist town. I think we need to be reminded that people live here.”

Connor was undeterred.

“As a business owner, with approximately 100 rooms, I've had zero complaints - not one,” Connor said.

He also was met with applause.

Dick Gay, owner of the Helendorf River Inn, did not share Connor's sentiments.

In fact, he previously sent a letter to the city reporting complaints from guests about the helicopter.

“I would ask the commission to see if they could alter the flight patterns and time of operation,” Gay recommended, referring to alleged night flights made by the helicopter.

Yet another proponent, Bill Adcock, felt “if you haven't seen Helen by air, then I don't think you've seen it.”

Several others, both in favor and against the business, addressed the commission. One opponent made reference to the helicopter noise as sounding like a “war zone,” while a supporter described McMillan as “respectful” and said “everyone should stop complaining and thank God we have ears to hear it.”

A compromise?

Following more than an hour of discussion, in which nearly two-dozen people spoke, McMillan addressed commissioners about some of the public's concerns.

Dressed in a suit and tie and accompanied by his wife and parents, McMillan also was joined by his attorneys.

McMillan said he was willing to try and reach a compromise.

Attorney Spencer Carr, of Carr and Gibbs in Clarkesville, defended his client.

“He's totally within his rights to fly that helicopter at 50 feet down Main Street, 12 times a day, 12 times an hour, should he choose so or desire,” Carr said.

“He can continue to operate how he wants to, but that's not why we're here.”

He revealed McMillan was trying “to be a good corporate citizen and to be a good citizen.”

Carr reiterated his client requested the public meeting “in the spirit of compromise.”

Carr, however, felt opponents at the meeting were not of that same spirit.

“The most disheartening thing I heard was [when] Mr. [Delbert] Greear said ‘we are not here for compromise.' Well, what a great spirit to come to a public hearing.”

“We're here for compromise,” Carr said.

Delbert Greear compared a compromise to being stabbed by a knife and pulling it out only halfway.

Carr touched on the complaint about the number of flights. He said even if 45 to 50 flights are made a day that's only five to six flights an hour during an eight-hour day.

As for the flights at night, McMillan said he made someone at the city (not during a commission meeting) aware that he would be doing later flights during the July 4 weekend. Other flights at night, he said, are personal flights he takes on his own after business hours.

McMillan and his representation suggested adjusting the flight pattern by cutting out his Chattahoochee Route and limiting the hours of operation.

The Chattahoochee Route follows the river and comes back around to the helicopter's headquarters at 865 South Main Street.

McMillan said that was his most popular flight.

“As myself,” McMillan said, “it's my helicopter, it's my business and if I want to fly at night personally I'm going to do it.”

“I'm not going to go out and do tours or generate income, but I enjoy [flying].”

“Now, I am willing to cut this tour out,” he said. “That tour constitutes a lot of money to me, that tour constitutes a lot of advertising for me. It's my highest exposure.”

The commission told those in attendance that it would take the information it heard into consideration.

State Rep. Charles Jenkins attended the meeting as well. While he did not address the commission, he sat in the front row for the entirety of the nearly two-hour meeting.

Following the meeting, Jenkins told the White County News he attended the meeting as a “fact-finding” assignment.

“I would hope that they could reach a compromise,” he said.

David Greear called the subject “an emotional subject on both sides of the issue.”

Last Updated: Thursday, August 14, 2008

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