Protesters picket Sunday outside the entrance to a helicopter tour company's landing site near Washington Avenue Grill.

MP reaches out to minister over helicopter tour

Residents protest over business taking off from Semiahmoo First Nation land.

White Rock residents protested on Marine Drive Sunday afternoon over a waterfront helicopter tour service that a local MP is now pledging to investigate.

A dozen protesters made their views known near the helicopter landing site on Semiahmoo First Nation lands, holding placards that read “Say No to Helicopter Rides,” “Habit Not Helicopter” and “Stop the Copter.”

“Strangers gathered together for this cause and wanted to express a voice,” said Scott Tolhurst, who lives across the street from the landing site. “(We) just wanted to make our voice known.”

Protesters also collected names for a petition against TRK Helicopter’s tours, focusing on noise pollution, safety concerns and ecological impact.

“It was not difficult to invite people to sign,” said Tolhurst, a pastor in Richmond. “The support from the community is very hard to measure from cars driving by and honking, but we got our share of honks, of course.”

Since TRK Helicopters launched its tour service along the waterfront last month, numerous residents have complained of excessive and continuous noise. For $55 per person, TRK offers customers an eight-minute tour of the waterfront, using a Semiahmoo First Nation field as a landing pad. Tours operate Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays within the hours of noon to 7 p.m.

Tolhurst said the “beyond excessive” noise from the helicopter has lessened somewhat since the operator has altered his flight path, but it’s still intrusive.

“The sound of the helicopter is being echoed off the hillside,” he said.

Raising anxiety among some residents is uncertainty over the tour’s future – whether it will return next summer and even expand. Tolhurst said he’s hoping the Semiahmoo First Nation will at least consult with the community.

Dianne Watts, MP for South Surrey-White Rock, told Peace Arch News her office is receiving numerous calls from residents angered by the noise.

“It’s a difficult situation for sure, and I know that there’s many seniors that are living in the area and are very concerned about it, and about the noise as well. I can absolutely relate to that. It’s a matter of everybody coming together and seeing how we can be good neighbours.”

Watts said her office has reached out to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau to ensure the operator is in compliance with federal rules and regulations. She also is looking to set up meetings with the Semiahmoo First Nation and the helicopter tour operator.

“If they are in compliance, and they are on First Nations land, then it comes down to the goodwill of all the parties and how we’re going to work together to mitigate the noise,” she said. “Sometimes it’s less about regulation and more about being good neighbours.”

Some residents have also raised concerns over the potential disruption to bird and waterfowl habitat, particularly at Kwomais Point Park – near the helicopter’s turnaround point. Watts acknowledged the bluff is an eagle breeding area, and said it’s another example of how impactful such a tour business can be when operated outside the regulations of a designated airport or airstrip.

“Certainly this is an anomaly, and it’s something that we really have to dig down on. It’s important that everybody is good neighbours on this front, and the residents are not overly impacted.”

Complaints about the tours have also been arriving at the doorsteps of city halls in White Rock and Surrey.

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin told PAN earlier this month that residents have little recourse but to complain to Transport Canada and the Semiahmoo band.

“It’s more a question of being good neighbours. I would be annoyed if I were them and we did something like that and had people circling helicopters over the reserve,” he said. “In an ideal world I’d like to see it stopped. I understand their need for revenue, but there are other ways that are less offensive to get it.”

Semiahmoo First Nation has not returned PAN calls and emails.

On its Facebook page last week, the city said it continues working with Transport Canada on the file. Residents with complaints are now being encouraged to email CAOPac-OACP@tc.gc.ca “with any evidence of individuals within the aviation industry conducting themselves in an unsafe manner.”

TRK’s own Facebook page promoting the beachfront tours is also generating feedback, prompting the company to warn Monday it will be removing harassing comments following reaction to its post of a young smiling customer.

“While we respect everyone having their own opinion, please refrain from negative comments towards innocent children on pictures that are sent to us to share, from people who are loving and appreciating this opportunity.

“We have left all of your comments as we respect everyone’s opinions, but we will need to start deleting them if they continue to be harassment directed at specific people you don’t even know, just because they don’t agree with you.”

TRK owner Randy Marks told PAN earlier this month that since launching his service he’s altered the flight path to reduce the noise impact, flying farther out and higher, with a departure path that takes the helicopter farther south before it heads across the bay.

“I’m pretty confident that the measures we’ve taken so far have alleviated the lower street-level noise. People down low are definitely saying it’s much better,” he said. “As far as the people that are up on the hillside, there’s only so much I can do.”

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