By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Paradise Helicopters is moving ahead with its plan to ferry visitors to the lava-covered Royal Gardens subdivision.
With the environmental assessment completed, the company is preparing a special use permit for the county Planning Department for a 15-by-15-foot helicopter landing platform on the site of Jack Thompson’s former home. The permit will need approval from the Windward Planning Commission.
The lava-covered site in Puna abuts the eastern boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Thompson, who has a longtime partnership with Paradise Helicopters, has tried for months to get permission to have landings at his home. In February, the company released a draft environmental assessment regarding the possibility of a helicopter landing pad on Thompson’s property.
Less than two weeks later, an outbreak of the tube system uphill sent a flow racing down the hill to Thompson’s two-story house, the last one standing in Royal Gardens. Two choppers from Paradise Helicopters arrived to evacuate Thompson, a house guest and a few treasured belongings before the flow covered his home and garden. But Thompson retains ownership of the land.
Paradise Helicopters wants to resume landings on the property as an “additional feature” of its existing helicopter tours, the final EA says. There would be up to four flights per day, with landings between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“Although the forested kipuka surrounded by lava around Mr. Thompson’s home is no longer present, the stop would still provide visitors an up-close look at the stark contrast of the lava inundation in an area of tropical beauty with scenic vistas of the ocean,” says the final EA, released in late July. “It would also provide Mr. Thompson with a beneficial use for his property that helps compensate for the lack of road access and loss of his home.”
The company acknowledged in the assessment that it had used Thompson’s property in the past, but it has discontinued that practice until it receives permission for the special use permit from the Windward Planning Commission.
On its website, Paradise Helicopters says its $461.70 “Hawaii Experience Plus Jack’s Lava House” trip is “temporarily unavailable,” but it includes a description of the tour.
“Land at Jack’s Lava House, which is close to the current lava activity,” the website says. “There you will be able to take in the beauty and destruction that is part of the Royal Gardens subdivision. An unforgettable experience! (Approximately 2 hours in the air and 30-45 minutes on the ground.)”
Rob Payesko, Paradise Helicopters’ director of business development, said the application for a special use permit has been “turned over to a third party.”
“It is a very long process, and the county has been wonderful,” Payesko. “The county has been good to work with … it just takes some time.”
While Hawaii County and the state have not opposed the helicopter landing pad, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kalapana resident John Carse have stated their objections.
Cindy Orlando, superintendent of the national park, said in a letter she was concerned about the precedent of allowing a helicopter landing pad within a half-mile of the national park while the Air Tour Management Plan is still being drafted. The ATMP covers all commercial air tour activities within the national park operating less than 5,000 feet above ground level or within a half-mile buffer zone beyond the park boundary.
Further, Orlando expressed concern that the noise of repeated helicopter landings and take-offs “will negatively impact the natural quiet of the park and (we) feel that the increased noise is a significant impact to the area.”
In response to the comments on noise complaints, Ron Terry, the consultant who prepared the environmental assessment, said the only visitors who would be able to detect a noise difference because of the helicopter landings are those who have hiked into a closed area in violation of park or county policy.
Carse, the Kalapana resident, wrote to Terry on Aug. 21, asking Paradise Helicopters to meet with the community and government officials in Puna.
“As you can undoubtedly understand, those of us who live directly in the flight path of this noisy and intrusive business have many more questions for you and your clients,” Carse wrote.
Payesko said his company was preparing a response to Carse.
Thompson could not be reached for comment; a call to his cell phone went to a Paradise Helicopters voicemail.
Email Peter Sur at email@example.com.