Bills take on helicopter noise

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald A Blue Hawaiian helicopter lands Tuesday at Hilo International Airport.

A slew of bills before the state legislature aim to address helicopter noise in Hawaii.

Proposed legislation from Puna Sen. Russell Ruderman would require the state Department of Health, in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration, to study the impact of aviation noise on residents.

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Senate Bill 436 would also require public meetings to be held during the course of the study to receive input from the community.

Ruderman said there are about 80 round trip flights between Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park per day, which means a “few poor people right on that flight path get 160 helicopters a day flying (over).”

While it’s been worse since last year’s eruption of Kilauea volcano in lower Puna, helicopter noise was a problem before the lava flow, he said.

However, according to Ruderman, only the FAA has control over flight paths and regulating aircrafts after they leave the airport.

There is “very little the state can do to influence these flights, but one place the state does have jurisdiction is noise, and the DOH is supposed to regulate noise where it impacts public health, which this does, but they’ve chosen not to do so until now.”

SB 436, Ruderman said, “is the only lever I have to get the state to get involved in the helicopter noise issue.”

“While DOH could provide a noise study, we would be ill-equipped to recommend legislation to address aircraft noise because the regulation of Hawaii’s airspace in general, and the management of flight paths in particular, in addition to the noise of an aircraft at its source, are governed exclusively by federal law,” department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said. “Consequently, any undertaking by DOH to regulate in these areas would be subject to federal preemption and would likely be invalidated.”

Helicopter noise has long been a concern for many Big Island residents.

In August, nearly 200 people attended a community meeting hosted by the state Department of Transportation’s Airports Division to discuss helicopter noise over residential areas.

From that meeting, a roundtable committee comprised of representatives from the DOT, FAA, Hawaii Helicopter Association and the community was established to work towards a solution. The committee has since met twice — in October and January.

The Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HICoP for short, also filed a lawsuit against the FAA last fall, seeking an injunction for the FAA to implement an Air Tour Management Plan over HVNP

While oral arguments were scheduled before the U.S. Court of Appeals in November, those arguments were canceled and the group is in the process of re-filing a petition.

Ruderman, however, said he’s not “anti-helicopter tours, but there are things (tour companies) could do to be a better neighbor.”

While the bill, as originally drafted, does not provide funding for the study, Ruderman said an appropriation could be determined later. He estimates that could be about $100,000.

SB 436 was co-sponsored by fellow Big Island Sens. Lorraine Inouye, Dru Kanuha and Kai Kahele, which Ruderman said is a “strong show of unity there.”

In addition to legislation, Ruderman also suggested establishing a heliport in lower Puna, similar to one in Waikoloa.

It “doesn’t have to be a big deal,” he said, and wouldn’t need much infrastructure.

“If we had that, so many things would be better.”

Tourists would drive there and back, which means helicopters wouldn’t have to fly over homes, he explained. Ruderman said it also would bring tourists — and economic benefits — into Puna.

In the state House, House Bill 421 — introduced by Rep. Richard Onishi, who serves Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown and Volcano — would, in part, create a five-year exemption from the general excise tax for facilities that service and maintain helicopters, provided that no less than 75 percent of the helicopters serviced and maintained are equipped with “quiet technology.”

As proposed in the amended legislation, quiet technology means the use of design, technology and modifications to “reduce or redirect the sound generated by the engine exhaust, tail or the main rotor.”

If approved, the bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2020 and be repealed Dec. 31, 2024.

Mayor Harry Kim opposed the measure, according to written testimony submitted before a hearing of House transportation committee.

While helicopters are a “valued component” of the state’s tourism industry, they’ve also been a source of “endless complaints from communities that lie in their flight paths,” he wrote.

“Helicopter companies are now asking the Legislature for special treatment with respect to the general excise tax,” Kim’s testimony continued. “There is no suggestion of economic hardship; there is no credible argument (that I know of) that new facilities will be attracted to Hawaii; and there is no suggestion that the industry would use its savings to better accommodate those who live in their fly-over country. The exemption will simply add to the companies’ bottom line.”

An amended HB 421, however, passed second reading Feb. 6 and was referred to the Economic Development and Business committee.

Finally, Senate Bill 1069, introduced by Oahu Sen. Laura Thielen, would provide an income tax credit for taxpayers who install a “helicopter noise canceling technology system” on helicopters operated primarily within the state. The tax credit would be available through Jan. 1, 2022.

The legislation also calls for restrictions of tour helicopter flights within a mile of residential neighborhoods between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 6 p.m and 9 a.m. Sundays and holidays.

A number of individuals and organizations opposed that language, though, citing the FAA’s exclusive authority to regulate flight patterns in testimony submitted before a hearing of the Senate’s Ways and Means committee.

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The committee recommended approval with amendments on Feb. 6.

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

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