Eight years ago area transportation officials pronounced that Denver needed a public helicopter landing facility near its downtown to accommodate the growing demand of business executives and to keep the city on par with other financial hubs around the country. Consultants have spent the past two years--and more than $125,000 --coming to the same conclusion, and they've recommended that the city build a "heliport" in the booming Central Platte Valley.
But Mayor Wellington Webb now has grounded the proposal, citing his preoccupation with the troubled Denver International Airport and concern that flocks of noisy helicopters would disrupt the lives of people living nearby.
"The mayor's not interested right now in pursuing a heliport in the valley," says Denver Planning Director Jennifer Moulton. "The community isn't ready for this."
The heliport concept was first floated back in 1986, when the Denver Regional Council of Governments conducted a "Regional Heliport Study" for the metro area. DRCOG determined that Denver should build a government-operated heliport close to its central business district.
In 1992, using a $75,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration and $54,000 more in city funds, Webb hired a team of experts to explore the idea in detail. The team, headed by the Kentucky-based R.A. Wiedemann & Associates, studied the long-term demand for helicopter service in Denver as well as a dozen potential sites for a landing pad.
Wiedemann has backed DRCOG's original finding: Without a heliport, the consultant says, Denver risks losing ground as a business center to cities such as Dallas, Portland, Indianapolis and Seattle.
A heliport, which would include helicopter fueling, maintenance and parking facilities, would require about thirteen acres of land. Wiedemann chose the old Rio Grande Railroad yard, just west of the Auraria Parkway, as the best site. The land is vacant, convenient to downtown and, according to the consultant, far enough from residential areas so that the helicopters could come and go without causing a ruckus.
"There will be minimal impacts to surrounding land uses as a result of the development of the heliport," the Wiedemann study said.
The problem was that area residents didn't buy it. At meetings during the past year, homeowners from Highland and other neighborhoods have voiced strong opposition to a heliport, claiming their lives would be disturbed by the continuous chop of helicopter blades.
"Anywhere you put it in the valley, it's going to have impact," says Highland resident Kirby Ambler. "The noise factor will never go away."
Both the consulting team and the city staff dispute this. Helicopters could fly over Interstate 25--instead of houses--as they approached or took off from the heliport. Besides, the nearest residential buildings are more than a quarter-mile from the proposed site.
And Gordon Appell, the city planner assigned to the heliport project, points out that coming changes in airspace regulations will allow helicopters to cruise over the city at much higher altitudes, further reducing the noise problem. With planes flying out of Stapleton International Airport now, copters must remain below a "ceiling" of about 700 feet. But when flight operations move out to DIA, choppers will be able to fly at more than 2,500 feet. "When the ceiling is gone, then a lot of the aggravation goes away," Appell says.
Residents remain unconvinced, and they said so at a public hearing on the matter a few months ago. Finally, on August 2, Webb conferred with planning chief Moulton and aviation director Jim DeLong, telling them to put the project on hold.
"I do not want to pursue the Central Platte Valley [heliport] project," Webb wrote in a follow-up memo the same day. "Please make sure your staffs understand that we should focus only on getting Denver International Airport open."
Though DIA--scheduled to open last October but now postponed indefinitely because of a glitch-ridden baggage system--is Webb's top priority, that's not his main reason for shelving the heliport, according to Moulton. "It's less DIA and more the neighborhoods," she says.
Ken Wells, Denver's airport operations manager, says that once DIA is up and running, the city may revisit the idea. Still, Webb made clear in his memo to Moulton and DeLong that consideration of the heliport will occur only "with the full participation of the communities which could be affected."
David Brehm, another Highland resident, says that with DIA bogged down and mayoral elections only nine months away, Webb probably jumped at the chance to appease his Highland constituents.
"The mayor's not crazy," Brehm says. "He's not going to start another aviation project unless the neighborhoods are on his doorstep begging him to do it."
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Despite the mayor's decision, there is still a chance for some new helicopter operations in the valley. Mile High Helicopter of Englewood is exploring the idea of operating a downtown-to-DIA shuttle service from a helipad it would build on land leased from one of several property owners.
The service wouldn't only be for "high-rollers," says company President Bill Benton. Mile High would charge about $70 for a one-way trip. Because the ride would only take ten minutes, the shuttle would be attractive to anyone "who thinks of their time as having a certain value to it."
But Webb's memo indicates he is equally concerned about the impact of that proposal, and Moulton says Mile High would need city approval before inaugurating the service. The city has told the company that it has to "show some neighborhood support for it," Moulton says.
One possibility, she says, would be to issue a temporary permit for the shuttle service. After a year or so, the city could survey the neighborhoods before deciding whether to reissue the permit. "If it's negative, we'll shut it down," Moulton says.