Heli-ski operators seek security of zoning 

Coast Range, Whistler Heli-skiing appeal for support

By Cindy Filipenko

Heli-ski operators in the Pemberton Valley are seeking rezoning to make it easier to conduct business.

Tyler Freed of Coast Range Heliskiing (CRH) and Doug O’Mara of Whistler Heli-skiing both made presentations to the Village of Pemberton on Oct. 17 asking for support at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District board level. Mayor Jordan Sturdy is Pemberton’s representative on the SLRD board.

While the heli-skiing season won’t be underway until mid-December both companies would like to put an end to having to regularly reapply for temporary use permits to conduct their business.

Freed is currently seeking zoning to allow for a staging area in the Birkenhead for the upcoming season. In his presentation, he stated that site use would be approximately six days per month, 20 minutes per day, with minimal environmental impact on the area. The proposed staging area would consist of an area for the helicopter to land, parking for a shuttle and a fuel storage enviro-tank, similar to the one currently employed by the Mt. Currie gas station.

“CRH is a significant contributor socially and financially to the community,” said Freed of his five-year-old business. “Our company has 25 employees… not including helicopter support, food services, accommodation and other suppliers.”

Most of CRH’s employees, and the majority of its suppliers, reside in the valley.

A large part of what is frustrating Freed is the lack of criteria governing the permitting process.

“I think everything is arbitrary, whether it’s the SLRD (or the VOP). There’s no set criteria. Basically, we’ve tried to show that we’re conducting our business in the most reasonable manner — that we’re doing everything in our power to ensure we can operate. And that we’re listening and doing our best to accommodate community concerns.”

The cost of obtaining the permits on an annual or bi-annual basis is compounded by having to prove that the business has the support of the community.

“We’ve done community meetings, helicopter over-flights, and brought in consultants to help us out to ensure we have the best operating situation.”

Despite his frustration, Freed is committed to operating his business in the valley.

“I want to do business in the Pemberton community. I believe in what I’m doing and I don’t want to give up on it. I wish there was more support and tolerance and understanding.”

Freed, who has used the Adventure Ranch for staging in the past, would like to conduct his entire business through the Pemberton airport. However, he claims that the current deal offered by the VOP at the airport is not a good one.

“I’ve been asked to lease land, fill the site, preload it, bring in the utilities and to do the access and I don’t even own the land. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If it was there for me to put up my building and move in, I’d do that in a second.”

Freed, who currently stores his helicopters at the airport, said he would welcome the opportunity of a viable, permanent location from which to operate his business.

“Any business is looking for security,” he said.

Freed’s concerns extend beyond his own business.

“We have such an opportunity with certain businesses in the tourism industry. We need to support them to prosperity, not drag them down.”

Mayor Sturdy questioned whether re-zoning in the Birkenhead was the way to go.

“By supporting re-zoning we would effectively be sending you somewhere else to do business,” suggested Sturdy.

Freed countered that this would not be the case.

“We need to be at the airport… a staging area is support for our business, it would not become our base of operation, there’s no way it would happen. We need to be at the airport.”

Whistler Heli-skiing representative Doug O’Mara also appealed to council to support that company’s application for rezoning. Whistler Heli-skiing has been operating under temporary use permits and is seeking permanent rezoning to comply with an SLRD recommendation, as the regional district’s bylaws currently only allow for temporary use permits for a particular location to be of two-year duration.

Like CRH, Whistler Heli-skiing is a significant employer in the area, with 20 of its 75 employees living in Pemberton. The 25-year-old company that operates from Powder Mountain to Bralorne, has also undertaken a number of voluntary studies to reduce impact on the community and environment. Unlike CRH, Whistler Heli-skiing does not use the Pemberton Airport.

“We don’t use the airport at all, it’s a geographical thing,” said O’Mara. “We would have to over-fly and that would add to the noise problem instead of mitigating.”

The zoning concerns will be brought forward at the next SLRD board meeting on Oct. 30.

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