Airport battle brews
North Elba mulls legal options as helicopter tour co. demands space
LAKE PLACID — The town of North Elba is hurtling toward a possible aviation showdown as its longtime airport operator seeks a lease extension while a new operator insists on using the airport alongside him, citing Federal Aviation Administration Law.
At Tuesday’s monthly town council meeting, the trustees unanimously approved to extend its five-year fixed-base operation agreement with Steve Short and his Adirondack Flying Service, a family business that has worked out of the airport since 1968. Short is also employed as the airport’s manager.
Under the terms of the agreement — which is pending a public hearing at 7 p.m., Monday, June 26 at the North Elba Town Hall — the rate for Short to operate out of the airport would increase each year by 3 percent, or roughly $500.
The agreement, however, currently is not exclusive to Short’s business since the airport, which is owned by the North Elba Park District, receives federal grant money. Therefore, other aviation operators may also work out of the airport to provide services such as scenic helicopter rides of the Adirondacks.
That’s precisely what the Saranac Lake-based business Go Aviation did during the first two weekends of June after it announced on its Facebook page on May 18 that it would launch “Adirondack Heli Tours” on June 1 out of the Lake Placid Airport.
The tours include options such as a $30-per-passenger “Olympic Tour,” a $420 “Adirondack Safari Tour” and what Go Aviation owner and Lake Placid resident Michael Klein said is the company’s most popular choice, the $100 “Ridge Rider Tour,” where helicopters fly low over the treetops of the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Area. The company also advertises a $399 “Fly Your Own Tour,” in which after a 30-minute “ground briefing,” customers launch with an experienced flight instructor who then lets them “take the controls.”
Klein and his business, however, won’t operate his helicopter tours this weekend after the town council demanded Tuesday that he provide a packet of documentation including proper insurance, required credentials and proof of Federal Aviation Administration approval as soon as possible.
The town’s requests came after two subsequent weekends when both town Supervisor Roby Politi and town attorney Ron Briggs arrived at the airport and twice told Go Aviation to leave the premises.
The town council and the new aviation operator went back and forth during a tense, nearly half-hour discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, during which Politi and other town councilmen told Klein they feel the way Go Aviation approached doing business at the airport was “arrogant.”
Klein and his business partner Brendan Carberry contended that they not only accomplished all of the required steps to operate out of the airport, but they also attempted to speak and subsequently spoke with some of the parties they were instructed to reach out to to operate at the airport.
Klein and Carberry also said they found the process to receive approval to operate their business there to be very confusing, a notion Politi sympathized with, though other town councilmen did not.
“I see this thing as a problem heading our way,” Councilman Bob Miller said Tuesday. “I am very concerned about these young men wanting to do business at our airport.”
“Maybe they are just ignorant of how people (have) to do business,” Politi replied. “A lot of people don’t understand who to go to, village and town — ‘What do you mean there is a town?’
“I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Speaking Friday afternoon, Klein said he sent an email Thursday to Briggs that included all the documents the town attorney had requested on Tuesday. Klein had yet to hear back.
“We would really like to be running by next weekend,” Klein said.
“(We) had a little bit of a spat between the town and my lawyer,” Klein added. He said he doesn’t think his company needs town councilmen’s approval, but he would rather work it out with them than turn this into a lawsuit.
He said his business would also like to have office space at the airport grounds, such as a location within the airport’s terminal building, though he is willing to consider other options. Klein again said the airport is required to provide some kind of space as it is federally funded, per FAA regulations.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Klein said longtime North Elba Code Enforcement Officer Jim Morganson told him business permits weren’t required to operate his tours at the airport. Morganson added that he instructed Klein to contact the airport manager, Short.
“And then I personally went to the airport and called you from the airport,” Morganson said to Klein, “‘Look, I’m down here. (The operators say they) haven’t talked to you. You are going to have to come down here and talk to the operator.”
“Which I sent emails to Mr. Short, which I have a record of,” Klein retorted. “I stopped in a number of times and never received a call back.”
“So then you didn’t get authorization,” Miller replied.
“I have federal authorization,” Klein responded.
“We’ve really done our best to get in touch with (Short) and have had no success,” Carberry added. “We’ve done our best.”
Morganson added later that he’d “take the heat” about explaining to Klein that he only needed to go to Short and not the town board.
“See, that’s why we thought it was alright,” Carberry said, “because we talked to the Park District, and they said that it was OK, just over the phone. And I thought that’s all we needed to do. I really didn’t know that — we aren’t trying to go over your head here. We just want the same treatment as every other business.”
Councilman Derek Doty asked Klein about the process to run Go Aviation out of Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, to which Klein responded there was none.
“You can see the town board’s perspective,” Briggs said. “Let’s say 10 operators of heli-tours came up and put 10 RVs (at the airport). Are you saying, is there a position that there is absolutely nothing we can do about that? Or how about 15?”
“I am not trying to interpret your laws,” Klein replied. “I’m trying to run my business. That’s why we are here trying to talk to you tonight.”
Klein conceded that he was wrong when he parked outside the airport gate on town property during the past two weekends and erected a temporary sign advertising his business on a town road without town approval.
Later during Tuesday’s meeting, when Klein and Carberry weren’t in attendance, Short described his operation as a “struggle every year.” Politi then said it would be a “disaster” if Short no longer answered the phone at the airport as its operator.
“Maybe we don’t have the space to safely handle two different operations at that airport,” Miller said a few moments later.
“Steve, I can understand entirely why you wouldn’t answer (Klein’s) email to allow him to come in and occupy your space,” Politi added. “Especially when you have a lease, I can understand that. Yikes.”
Briggs said the town has retained Spiegel & McDermott LLP of Washington, D.C., as counsel on this aviation matter.