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Helicopter noise panel to meet

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo Passengers disembark from a Blue Hawaiian helicopter at Hilo International Airport.

A new committee that aims to address noise created by tour helicopters will meet for the first time today.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara confirmed by email that the department is facilitating the first roundtable discussion regarding helicopter operations today in Hilo, but added the meeting is not open to the public.

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“Unfortunately, there have been threats of violence and death made to members of the Hawaii Helicopter Association that have been reported to law enforcement authorities,” Sakahara said. “Threats of violence are against the law and are counterproductive to finding a resolution.

“The roundtable discussions are invitation only until further notice.”

The meeting comes after the DOT’s Airports Division hosted a community forum Aug. 14 to discuss helicopter flights over residential areas. The formation of the committee was announced during the August meeting, which was attended by representatives from the DOT, the Federal Aviation Administration, Hawaii Helicopter Association and nearly 200 community members.

“The purpose of the roundtable meetings is to receive input from various stakeholders and determine the ideal outcome moving forward regarding helicopter operations,” Sakahara said.

Although the complete list of committee members has yet to be confirmed, initial names provided by the DOT on Wednesday match those shared with the Tribune-Herald last week by state Sen. Kai Kahele.

Steven Santiago and Daryl Fujita will represent the DOT, Tiffany Chitwood and a yet-to-be-determined individual will represent the FAA and Eric Lincoln and Paul Morris will represent the Hawaii Helicopter Association, with Alan Okinaka and Patrick Kahawaiolaa representing the community.

Conrad Hokama is an alternate community member, according to Sakahara.

“The meeting is (Thursday), so I’m not really sure how this topic is going to be addressed,” said Okinaka, president of the Ainaola-Mauka Kumiai, a community group in the Waiakea Uka area of Hilo.

He said a lot of people in his community complained about the frequent helicopter flights, and the noise is something he’s encountered as well, saying at times it’s “very frequent and it’s very loud.”

Without the committee having met, Okinaka said the only expectation he has is finding “a way we can lessen the amount of noise the neighborhood has with the flights going over.”

While the committee needs to consider the economy in regard to helicopter tours, he said, “at the same time, we have a neighborhood people expect to be more on the quiet side.”

Okinaka said it looks like the committee includes a “good cross-section” of people, but added that members need to keep an open mind.

“I can’t tell you what the outcome will be, but I think we’ll have a good discussion,” he said.

Kahawaiolaa, president of the Keaukaha Community Association, last week confirmed his participation on the committee.

Noise, in general, has long been an issue for Keaukaha because of the community’s proximity to Hilo International Airport.

One group notably absent from the new roundtable is Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP.

Bob Ernst, a founding board member of HICoP — a nonprofit organization fighting against noise pollution from tour helicopters — said several elected officials suggested the organization be represented on the committee.

There is no other volunteer-operated and funded nonprofit that has the “depth and knowledge” about the impact of helicopter noise that HICoP does, he said

HICoP has met with transportation officials, elected representatives and helicopter operators many times through the years, but Ernst said “nothing’s been done.”

Calling it a “loaded committee,” Ernst expressed doubt about the group’s success.

“Here’s a group of people that have full knowledge of the impact. … They know what’s going on, and for all these years, they’ve done nothing in any way to address the problem, so why would we expect they would do it now?” he said.

Ernst also said there is no one sitting on the committee from Puna, the “most impacted community.”

“I see this just as something of a smokescreen to make the people think that something’s being done … and the tour copter operators can continue, business as usual,” he said.

For its part, however, “HICoP is going to continue doing what needs to be done,” Ernst said.

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HICoP recently filed a lawsuit against the FAA that seeks to limit helicopter traffic over the island. That suit will go before the U.S. Court of Appeals in November.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.