Complaints about seaplane operation appear to backfire

Marin commission recommends keeping permit status quo — except to remove restrictions that are under federal oversight

By EMILY LAVIN
elavin@thearknewspaper.com

The Marin Planning Commission will recommend easing, rather than tightening, restrictions on Richardson Bay-based Seaplane Adventures, dealing a blow to a group of Strawberry residents who say the planes are a noisy, threatening nuisance.

The commission at its Aug. 28 meeting voted 5–0 to recommend the Board of Supervisors reject new regulations for the sightseeing tour company, which uses a channel of the bay west of the Strawberry peninsula for takeoffs and landings. County staff had recommended limits on the number of flights per day, on the capacity of planes to keep sizes down and on hours of operation, as well as a restriction prohibiting taxiing in a small inlet east of De Silva Island.

Instead, the board voted in favor of keeping the status quo except to remove restrictions on flight patterns and noise levels that the county added to the current permit in the 1980s: Staff research resulting from the recent complaints by Strawberry residents revealed that those particular regulations were unenforceable because they’re under federal, not local, jurisdiction.

The vote was taken after a standing-room-only meeting that stretched nearly five hours and was attended by more than 200 people, dozens of whom spoke during public comment. On advice from county counsel, Chair John Eller and Commissioner Peggy Curran recused themselves from the vote because they both live in Strawberry.

The commission’s recommendation will now head to the county Board of Supervisors for approval.

Commissioner Peter Theran called the hearing unusual, referring to both the packed house and the issue up for consideration.

“I think it’s a difficult spot we’re in,” he said. “This is a man’s livelihood. And this is a whole neighborhood’s concern.”

Prompted by neighbor complaints

Seaplane tours have operated out of the Redwood Highway base for more than 70 years. Current owner Aaron Singer bought the business in 2012, changing the name from San Francisco Seaplane Tours to Seaplane Adventures.

Over the past several years, a group of Strawberry Point and De Silva Island residents have grown angry with Singer. They claim that as he expands the business, he’s flying more frequently with larger, noisier planes and using disruptive flight patterns that come too close to homes and threaten area wildlife.

The neighbors say those maneuvers violate conditions of the business’s use permit, which was issued in 1953 and last modified in 1981 after the Strawberry Point Homeowners Association complained about noise and safety issues.

Among other restrictions, the 1981 permit modification bans approaches over Strawberry Point and power approaches — requiring pilots to cut their engines and glide — except when necessary for safety. It also imposes a noise limit of 86 decibels on planes. It’s those additions that are now recommended to be scrapped as unenforceable.

After Singer purchased the business, residents began complaining to the county in December 2015. They say they’ve since tried to hold multiple meetings with him, but none have yielded adequate changes.

Singer, meanwhile, has maintained he’s running a safety-first operation that fully complies with the use permit. His claims were backed by a county-initiated 2016 study that found the business was abiding by noise and flight restrictions, though residents have criticized that report as flawed — claims and criticisms that would be rendered moot if those restrictions are eliminated by the Board of Supervisors.

The issue landed on the Planning Commission’s agenda after county staff determined environmental regulations aimed at protecting the bay shoreline, enacted after the use permit was last modified, and increased development surrounding the inlet between De Silva Island and Seminary Drive, where seaplanes sometimes taxi, warranted a review of the use permit.

County staff recommended the Planning Commission approve a new set of regulations that included limiting the business to six flights daily, with those flights taking place between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekends. Each flight would be limited to a maximum of eight passengers, and planes would be restricted from using the inlet between De Silva Island and Seminary Drive for maneuvers.

However, in researching the use permit to make the suggested changes, county staff found that several of the permit’s current restrictions on noise levels and takeoff and landing procedures are preempted by Federal Aviation Administration regulations. That means the county can’t impose noise restrictions as part of the use permit, according to a staff report, and also seems to indicate that the ban on power approaches and approaches over Strawberry Point would be difficult or impossible for the county to enforce. As a result, staff recommended the Planning Commission scrap those restrictions from the permit.

Locals express differing opinions

At the commission’s Aug. 28 meeting, the board heard from Singer and residents of Strawberry Point and De Silva Island, as well as members of the public — the majority of whom supported the seaplane business and wanted no change to its operations.

Singer reiterated his commitment to safety and detailed some of the compromises he said he’s made to address the concerns of Strawberry residents, including using less power on takeoff when possible and investing in quieter propellers, which some residents have disputed.

He noted the business is regulated by 11 agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, and said he’s never been in trouble with any of them.

“We play by the rules, and we obey the law,” he said.

He told the commission that taxiing into the inlet near De Silva Island is “100 percent necessary” for safe operation because of wind conditions in the area and stressed that his business is a seasonal one. Flights take off between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the summer and between 10:45 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the winter, he said. During the peak months of July and August, there might be eight to 12 flights per day, while business slows considerably in the winter months, he said.

Seaplane Adventures is his livelihood, he told the board.

“If you eliminate my ability to conduct my business within the law and obey the rules, my family will be hurt by this, the 15 people who work with Seaplane Adventures, their families will be hurt by this,” he said. “And it’s one thing if we were brazenly breaking the law and breaking the rules, but we are not.”

Singer had plenty of support, with a steady stream of audience members taking to the podium to affirm Seaplane Adventures’ value to the community.

Many pointed out that any noise generated by the planes is brief and is outweighed by the charm of seeing the planes from their backyards.

Whenever she and her husband hear the planes take off, “we stop and pause and take note because it adds such great joy to our day to see it,” said Sausalito resident Tamara Cotten.

Kirk Heiser noted the 70-year-old business predates many of the area’s residents.

“I certainly understand the concerns, but it seems extremely unfair to move into an area, know a business has been operating for 70 years and then complain because they hear a noise,” he said.

However, residents of Strawberry Point and De Silva Island painted a different picture of the seaplane operations.

Stephen Fein, who lives on Strawberry Point, disputed Singer’s assertion that he is not operating differently from former owners of the business. Fein said the seaplanes have gone from an “entertaining community diversion” to a “Frankenstein monster,” partly because Singer is using two de Havilland Canada Beaver airplanes.

“Four-hundred-fifty horsepower engines blast their way past our homes every day. Planes taxi past our homes at full power every day. Planes fly over Strawberry 1,000 feet or less above our heads every day. Planes fly perilously close to homes every day,” Fein said.

Residents aren’t trying to put Singer out of business, he said, but they’re frustrated.

“We just want Mr. Singer to be more considerate,” he said. “Follow the rules and be a better Richardson Bay neighbor.”

Strawberry Point resident Dirk Ivory called the business a “nightmare.”

“Intrusive noise happens many times a day and makes it virtually impossible to enjoy your home, your backyard, your quality of life,” Ivory said.

He told the commission planes have flown within 60 feet of his home, leaving his family afraid for their safety.

“It makes your heart jump,” he said. “You want to run, and you just cannot believe this large plane is flying that close to you.”

County lacks jurisdiction, board says

As the Planning Commission began to discuss the issue, commissioners expressed confusion about what role the board should play in mitigating the issue — if any.

Several commissioners wondered aloud whether zoning changes to protect shoreline environments and the increased development on De Silva Island and Strawberry Point was enough to warrant taking a second look at the existing use permit.

“The changed conditions, to me, are conditions that are happening everywhere,” said Commissioner Margot Biehle. “It’s growth, it’s people building new homes and all the (resulting) noise and other constraints that happen in life when you move into some place that’s a little more remote and gradually over time other people move in.”

She added there also doesn’t seem to be any evidence of environmental degradation due to the seaplanes.

Theran said there are hundreds of homes along the inlet waterfront that were put there before the added environmental protections for the shoreline were adopted.

“I’m thinking, why do we single out this one thing in this area and say that shouldn’t be allowed?” he said.

After questioning county counsel Brian Case, the board agreed it didn’t seem to have any control over Strawberry residents’ primary concern: noise.

Commissioner David Paoli suggested the issue might be better worked out between the parties privately.

“It’s really up to the operator and the community to somehow get together and solve this problem,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. Our hands are tied.”

Ultimately, commissioners said the underlying motivation for imposing limits on flights, hours of operation and size of planes, as well as for banning planes from the inlet near De Silva Island, would be noise reduction, and federal rules would preempt those regulations.

If the Board of Supervisors approves the recommendation, Seaplane Adventures’ permit will continue to limit use of Richardson Bay to arrivals and departures only and will permit a school to operate from the base while barring training maneuvers from the area. The permit will also continue to limit the number of aircraft at the base to four, with only two of those allowed to be in use simultaneously for revenue-producing purposes.

“We all learned a lot today,” Biehle said after the vote. “Mostly, what we learned is we don’t have a whole lot of jurisdiction to govern the things that residents and the people who spoke to us are concerned about.”

Emily Lavin is The Ark’s assistant editor and Strawberry reporter. Reach her at 415–944–3841.

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