There aren’t any helicopter landing pads in Stowe, despite the wealth enjoyed by many of the town’s homeowners.
This isn’t a fact that just materialized suddenly out of thin air. The Vermont Transportation Board has been receiving more and more requests for private helipads.
John Zicconi, executive secretary with the Vermont Transportation Board, said in his decade or so working with the department of transportation, he’s seen the number of applications gradually tick up. He said that when he first started, there might have been one application for a helipad every other year.
Now, the agency is getting three or four applications a year.
“It may not seem like a lot, but it shows the 1 percent getting wealthier and looking for ways to avoid traffic,” Zicconi said. “And a lot of communities are ill-prepared for the request.”
Both Zicconi and Stowe town planner Tom Jackman were surprised to discover there weren’t any already in town.
With Vail Resorts buying more and more ski resort properties around the country, including Stowe Mountain Resort, “it seems inevitable it might happen at some point,” Jackman said.
“It’s an easy shot from Boston or Montreal,” he said. “You could basically almost commute from Montreal by helicopter.”
Private airstrips are also part of the same discussion, but Jackman said he and town planning commission members think the nearby Morrisville-Stowe airport has already accommodated people’s private planes. He invited Zicconi to talk with the planning commission last week about helipads.
The planning commission went into the discussion initially thinking it didn’t want to see them in Stowe, Jackman said. But he thought an all-out prohibition might have “unintended consequences.”
“They thought, ‘do we really want to ban them outright?’ ” Jackman said. “It’d be a good idea to at least get something on the books.”
The planning commission tasked Jackman with looking at other towns — particularly those with major ski resorts, like Ketchum, Idaho, Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Park City, Utah — and suggest ways to update Stowe’s bylaws to address aviation.
Getting something on the books is key for a town because without zoning bylaws governing the placement of private airstrips and helipads, the default is to just allow it. And the Transportation Board does not get involved with municipal land use, Zicconi said.
A helipad or landing strip is known as a “restricted landing area.” Getting approved for one involves a three-step process, at the local, state and federal levels.
The first step is at the town or city level, through its land use rules. Zicconi said that courts have made it clear that if a municipality doesn’t have a process to review aviation, “anyone can build one.” On the other hand, if local zoning prohibits it, “we won’t even look at it,” he said.
“In a way, the communities hold a lot of cards in whether this type of facility is approved,” he said.
Landing strips and helipads don’t necessarily have to be an actual constructed thing. Zicconi said a lot of people don’t actually build anything, just maybe clear out some trees.
The second step is a safety review — “That’s our bailiwick here at the state,” Zicconi said.
The state’s responsibility is to basically make sure a helicopter can take off and land safely, which includes tree clearances and a glide path.
“Everyone thinks helicopters go straight up, but that’s not actually the case,” he said.
A landing strip or helipad also has to be available for certain public access, such as if a helicopter from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center needs to use it, or if a pilot needs to make an emergency landing.
The third level of control is with the Federal Aviation Administration, which takes the actual airspace above and near the landing area into consideration. The FAA will make sure no nearby airports are in the flight path, for instance.
“The Feds control the actual air,” Zicconi said.