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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 8 months ago

Winter Garden residents rally against Riegl USA helipad

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City leaders and company representatives attended the standing room only event.
by: Jim Carchidi Former Associate Editor

Winter Garden City Commission Chambers was filled beyond capacity as approximately 160 residents attended a Nov. 30 community meeting to discuss a helipad permit request by Riegl USA. Chairs were even placed in the hallway to accommodate the overflow.

Riegl USA’s headquarters, located at 14707 West Colonial Drive, is especially close to Brandy Creek and the Oaks at Brandy Lake. Residents were surprised by a recent series of low helicopter flights from the proposed helipad site, raising concerns for safety and the impact of noise levels. Interim City Manager Jon Williams said a special allowance was made for the tests but no further flight approvals have been issued.

The company opened its 18,500-square-foot facility last year with the intention to expand. A helipad was an intended addition and, according to Riegl USA project manager Stephen Aldridge, who attended the meeting, the company presented the plan two years ago to the city.

“We are here to listen to you,” Riegl USA senior vice president Jim Van Rens told the audience at the start of the meeting. He went on to explain the company’s need for a helipad but conceded the need for further discussion. “Companies such as Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light use our technology to monitor vegetation growth that destroys power lines during hurricane season, so the helicopter pad is critical to support our customers when time is of the essence… We will put on hold the helipad and the Winter Garden campus development plans to hear your concerns. We look forward to working with the City of Winter Garden and our neighbors on a mutually beneficial solution,” he said.

Van Rens' statement failed to put the audience at ease. Brandy Creek resident Lynn Fitzgerald was first to comment. “We have veterans in our subdivision who lived through the Vietnam War and believe me, helicopters are not a pleasant sound (for them) to be hearing.” She also cited possible noise disruptions for young children and residents working from home, and the fear of declining property values. “This project will change the quality of our lives,” she said. “It really comes down to this: did the company act as a good neighbor to us by not letting us know about this ’til now?”

The meeting lasted more than 90 minutes and included comments from approximately 30 residents.

Blake Price, a resident of the Oaks at Brandy Lake, wanted information on possible zoning changes and controls on helipad activity. “Just because you use it once-a-month doesn’t mean that, when you decide to move your company and somebody else moves in, that it doesn’t get used daily or hourly,” he said.

Nicholas Wilson, whose home is across the pond from the Riegl USA headquarters, described his experience during last week’s helicopter activity. “I was actually touching the wall of my house,” he said. “It’s solid, poured cement and I could feel it (vibrating). Over time it’s going to destroy the drywall, the ceiling.”

Ocoee resident Melissa Myers expressed her concern for the long-range effects of the helipad. “If this gets approved; guess what? It may get approved in Ocoee… And I don’t want to have to deal with this issue in my city. This has to stop.”

Oaks at Brandy Lake resident Ken Alessi made an impassioned speech against the project with a slide presentation of FAA regulations he said were violated. Riegl USA president Johannes Riegl Jr. said the FAA has reviewed and accepted his company’s plans. But Van Rens received applause with an admission. “We probably have been remiss in not trying to communicate with the community earlier,” he said. “It’s clear that everyone is against this, we hear that clearly, there’s no confusion.”

City leaders took turns addressing the audience at the end of the meeting.

“This is not an approval process, this is not scheduled on any city commission meetings as of yet,” said Winter Garden Community Development Director Steve Pash. “We hold these meetings to gather all of your comments.”

“We understand, based upon the presentation that was made here tonight, the project is on hold,” said Interim City Manager Jon Williams. “We’ll certainly keep in touch with the HOAs to make sure you are duly informed throughout this entire process.”

Commissioner Ron Mueller took the mic as audience members pressed him to comment on a City Commission vote. “We appreciate (Riegl USA’s) business, this is how our city grows,” he said. “But the give-and-take is, you cant have everything you want… It’s horribly impactful to all of us and its clear that it can’t go forward. If it came before the board I would vote no.”

After the meeting, Johannes Riegl Jr. reiterated the hold on the project and stated there was no timeline for the expansion, but he hoped a compromise could eventually be reached. "We heard the concerns and we understand them," he said. "It's not a convenience... We really do need (the helipad) for moving our business forward and supporting out critical customer base. We still want to see if there are possibilities."

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Jim Carchidi was an associate editor for the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. 

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