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Helipad plans grounded again

AHOSKIE – Despite having approval of a revised ordinance, it appears that plans have stalled again in allowing for the construction of a helipad on property owned by Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital.

At its April 13 meeting, the Ahoskie Town Council amended and approved an existing ordinance that would open the door for R-CH officials to make an application for its helipad as long as that proposal met all the requirements of the ordinance.

It now appears there are sticking points over the exact language of the revised ordinance.

At this week’s (Tuesday, May 11) regularly scheduled meeting of the Ahoskie Town Council, Meryl Brown, a member of the town’s Planning & Zoning Board, questioned what council members approved last month. She alleged that alterations were made to what the Planning & Zoning Board recommended to the Town Council regarding the helipad issue.

Brown said that since the hospital is located within a residential area, “two very important components of this ordinance were a safety area around the helipad, also referred to as a Heliport Protection Zone of no less than 185 feet, and the recommendation of a sound barrier wall to be installed between the helipad and neighboring properties.”

She claimed that at some point after the packets [agenda and informational items] were distributed to members of the Ahoskie Town Council prior to their scheduled meeting on April 13, “the information in that packet regarding the helipad ordinance was altered, and the ‘revised’ Planning Board recommendation did not include the safety zone and sound barrier.”

“No where in the minutes of the April 13th meeting does it say that any changes were made from what the Planning Board recommended,” Brown stated while addressing the Town Council at this week’s meeting. “The revised ordinance, without the safety zone and sound barrier language, was passed unanimously by the Town Council.”

Brown said there are two items in need of discussion.

“The first issue is the safety and consideration of the citizens of Ahoskie, including those who live in the area surrounding the hospital whose lives and property values will more than likely be affected by the placement of a helipad on the hospital campus,” Brown observed. “The lack of a required safety zone and the recommended sound barrier could prove to be dangerous and disruptive to the people in the neighboring properties, and will likely adversely affect property values.”

She added that a report received by the Planning & Zoning Board from a consultant hired by Vidant states the helipad will be private and is not under the jurisdiction of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administation).

“In our research we found that the safety zone is a recommendation from the FAA, not a requirement. Those two facts make the Planning Board’s requirement of a safety zone and recommendation of a sound barrier essential,” she said.

The second issue noted by Brown is how and why was the ordinance that the Planning & Zoning Board sent to the Town Council for consideration altered, not to include the two key components, and were the Council members made aware of those changes prior to the vote they took on April 13.

“I have no idea who makes up these packets and who has the authority to place items in the packet and who can alter items in those packets. From the outside looking in, this does not look right and the citizens of Ahoskie deserve an explanation,” she stated.

Brown emphasized that she understand the need for a helipad near the hospital that, if built, will “facilitate rapid transport of critically ill patients to a larger medical center, and that every minute counts during that transport.”

Currently, medical helicopters summoned to Ahoskie land on the lawn in front of Hertford County High School, located approximately one mile from the hospital.

Ahoskie Town Manager Kerry McDuffie told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald on Thursday that what the Council approved at their April 13 meeting is a 75-foot minimum setback (measured from the proposed 40-by-40 foot landing pad) on all sides from residential property lines. Additionally approved is a helipad protection zone of no less than 185 feet at ground level.

He added that the sound barrier wall was part of the language in the Council’s information packet, but it was viewed as a recommendation and not a requirement.

“Our Town Council has the right to change or clarify recommendations from Planning and Zoning Board,” McDuffie said. “We thought we were making clarifications while the Planning and Zoning Board thought we were making changes.”

The Town Council voted at Tuesday’s meeting to ask the Planning and Zoning Board to study the issue once again.

“On a zoning issue, Town Council cannot adopt any revisions to an existing ordinance without holding a public hearing,” McDuffie explained. “They’ve already voted in favor of making changes to an existing ordinance. If new changes are recommend to that ordinance, the process starts all over again, first with the Planning and Zoning Board, then a public hearing, and then the Council considering the recommendation.”

McDuffie said any action going forward with this issue needs to include a joint meeting between Vidant R-CH officials, the Town Council, and the Planning and Zoning Board.

“I think everyone is 100 percent for the hospital,” said Henry Daniels at Tuesday’s meeting. “We want to work with the hospital. I own three houses within 200 feet of the proposed landing zone, so I’m not taking this lightly. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere, one where we can all come together and make this work. We can find a solution.”

While there are options for the exact location of the Vidant R-CH helipad, the favored area appears to be what is now the hospital’s physicians’ parking lot on West Memorial Drive.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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