WESTFIELD - There will be no helicopter rides offered in the Town of Westfield.
The Westfield Town Board approved a special use permit for an outdoor family recreation area on agriculturally zoned land across from Cross Roads Farm Market on Sherman-Westfield Road at its meeting on Wednesday, May 2. However it only approved the "BirdieBall" golf course portion of the SUP because it had not received all the necessary information regarding the request to allow helicopter rides in time to look it over before the meeting.
In addition, the SUP applicant Mei Lu has decided not to pursue the helicopter rides or flea market idea as of Wednesday, May 16 before the Town Planning Board was scheduled to discuss the topic further. The board will still re-open the SUP public hearing its meeting on Wednesday, June 6, but with the applicant no longer requesting any further activities, the hearing will most likely close immediately thereafter.
Photo by Jenna Loughlin
Tom Herr, standing left, speaks on behalf of his wife Mei Lu at the Westfield Town Board meeting on May 2 in Eason Hall regarding Lu’s application for a special use permit submitted to the town requesting permission for a BirdieBall golf course, helicopter rides and a flea market on a 50-acre piece of property across the way from Cross Roads Farm Market on Sherman-Westfield Road. The board approved the golf portion of the SUP at the meeting, but needed more information before approving the other requests.
The room was packed for the May meeting with those who had opinions to share with the board regarding allowing helicopters to take off, land and fly in this area. Also on hand was Tom Herr, Lu's husband, who spoke on her behalf.
Herr explained the 50 acre piece of property was purchased because Lu wants to be an organic farmer, but in the meantime they were looking to offer some money-making activities for those shopping at Cross Roads on the weekends. While the two had many ideas for what to offer - mini golf, pony rides, bounce houses and a flea market - many required too much insurance, but it was recommended to them they include anything they were considering into the SUP.
Herr went on to explain he and his wife had found a certified and licensed Western New York helicopter business that was interested in offering sight-seeing tours. The pilots are trained to determine when and where it is safe to take off and land. He said this company works with the Department of Environmental Conservation, so it is aware of environmental concerns and that it would not be flying into the gorge.
"We are not operating a heliport," Herr said. "We are not setting up a sight-seeing tour operation. ... It would only be on days that Cross Roads Market is in operation. ... There's no intention to try to drive more traffic up there to come any other days of the week."
The issues brought up by audience members during the public comment portion of the meeting were mostly about the noise factor and the close proximity to bald eagle nests. Others had questions or comments about how SUP are written, submitted and approved. Town Attorney Joel Seachrist explained that since the SUP had requested commercial recreational use, anything that fits into that category can be included in one application, but the board can approve or reject individual parts or all of the application.
Mike Ceci, a village resident who also owns property directly across from Lu, said he purchased the land because of the tranquility and quiet in order to enjoy retirement without any idea there would be helicopters across the way. He said he was not opposed to the other uses in the SUP, just the helicopters.
"We're the ones who would be most affected," Ceci said. "I am not anti business. I am not anti development. ... The helicopter, that is definitely crossing the line. ... It should not happen."
Mary Quinn-Fulmer said she felt the land was zoned agricultural for a reason and is an advocate of keeping it that way. Steve Peters, a life member of the Fish and Game Club and village resident, said he was concerned with the loss of habitat.
Rick Rubsick asked if the helicopter company should be applying for the permit instead of the property owner. Herr said he asked the helicopter person and by his certification, he only needs landowner permission, though the landowner needs the permission from the municipality.
Gil Randall from the Town of Chautauqua and a member of Hawk Watch spoke out as an advocate for raptors which have an important, major migratory pathway through the skies in this area, in addition to other endangered bird species.
"When you're issuing permits or talking about issuing permits to any projects up there, you have to think about this very, very valuable environmental resource," he said.
Mary Lendel, a board member for the audubon, read a letter asking the town to do an environmental assessment to determine environmental impacts and also pointed out the area in question is near an important bird corridor. Gene Barry said he watches vultures and has dreams of being up there, but not in a helicopter.
Tom Carlson was worried about accountability and opening a door to problems that will not be controllable in the future.
"You allow this to start and it's just gonna snowball," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, the gorge is no place for a helicopter."
Jeannie Habig said residents need to have confidence in their elected officials and pointed out medical helicopters are already flying in the area two to three times a week in addition to Homeland Security helicopters.
"I understand all of your concerns, but let's be open minded," she said.
"There's a lot of mixed uses up there and it's fallen on some hard times and we're hoping to have it be able to be prosperous again in that area," Town Supervisor Martha Bills said at the conclusion of the public comment. "This is an unusual request. We all had to think about it. It's a little different and it takes time to think it through and make sure things are done safely and well and correctly. It was new to us too, and we're having to take some time to learn about it.
" We appreciate you all coming," she said. "We will take all your comments into consideration."
Before the conclusion of the meeting, resolution no. 23 0f 2012, a negative declaration SUP for outdoor family recreation area, and resolution no. 24 of 2012, an issuance of SUP for outdoor family recreation area - only for a BirdieBall golf course and no other activity listed in the application - were passed unanimously.