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Helipad on hold as hostile Winter Garden crowd drags Riegl USA, city planners

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, December 2, 2021


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Residents of Brandy Creek, Oaks at Brandy Lake and Hyde Park were already furious about Riegl USA's proposed helipad when they showed up to Tuesday night's community meeting. But when they learned that city planners knew about the helipad for more than two years and didn't inform anyone in the nearby communities, then they really got angry.

Residents from three Winter Garden communities spoke with one voice at Tuesday night’s community meeting about mapping technology company Riegl USA’s proposal to build a helicopter pad adjacent to their homes. And that collective voice said, Take your helipad and shove it.

Anger and frustration was the basic vibe at Winter Garden City Hall as more than 170 people crowded into the commission chambers, lining the walls, standing in the vestibule and spilling out into the lobby, to make their opposition to Riegl USA’s corporate helipad crystal clear to city staff and company representatives.

Riegl USA put the helipad proposal on indefinite hold. It is no longer on the Dec. 9 city commission agenda, according to Interim City Manager Jon Williams.

“The turnout we had tonight speaks volumes about how the community feels about the overall project,” Williams said. “We’ll certainly take that back and wait for Riegl to come forward with any proposed revisions.” Should that happen, Williams said another community meeting would be scheduled. “They may decide to withdraw the application altogether.”

“This is where our voice counts,” said District 2 City Commissioner Ron Mueller, who assured constituents that he would vote against a helipad near residential areas. Riegl USA is in District 2. 

“The message was loud and clear to Riegl. It was loud and clear to the mayor, to myself, to city staff, and now that this proposal is on hold, I certainly hope that Riegl understands the message from the people who showed up tonight that we are not moving forward with the helipad in Winter Garden.”

Riegl USA clearly heard the drums of anti-company sentiment beating in Winter Garden ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting via multiple posts on Nextdoor and ad-hoc resident meet-ups.  At the start of the meeting, senior vice president James Van Rens announced that the helipad project had been put on hold and that the company, which Van Rens said invested more than $12 million in Winter Garden, wanted to find a “mutually beneficial solution.”

Van Rens emphasized that rather than send spokespeople to the meeting, both he and U.S. company president Johannes Riegl Jr. were there to demonstrate that they’re “welcoming people.”

“We’re the company. We’re here. And we’re here to listen,” he said.

Still, that did nothing to quell the hostility in the room over what residents described as Riegl USA’s secrecy around the helipad and disregard for how helicopter traffic would impact their residential neighbors (increased noise; decreased property values) and destroy the wildlife habitats, flush with hawks, herons, osprey, even the occasional bobcat, around them. The company has conducted no studies on how introducing a helicopter might affect the surrounding environs.

More than one attendee pointed Riegl USA representatives toward Orlando Executive Airport as the more appropriate venue.

“The airport is a great place for aviation,” quipped Andrew Clark of Oaks at Brandy Lake.

Dennis Ahearn of the 55+ community Hyde Park said he’d seen this same type of thing happen when another corporation built a heliport next-door to where he lived in a Sarasota community. “Everything they said they were going to do, it didn’t stay that way. Everything started to change one year into it, two years into it. Next thing you know our community and the other communities around it were fighting it out in court.

“It absolutely amazes me that you waited this long to let us all know,” Ahearn added. “It absolutely amazes me.”

“Did the company act as a good neighbor to us by not letting us know about this until now?” Lynn Fitzgerald, of Brandy Creek, asked rhetorically as she read from a prepared statement. “Maybe they thought we wouldn’t care about this. You are wrong. No helicopter pad for me.”

“I just have a short statement I want to make to you,” said Beverly Kimble, looking directly at Van Rens. The Oaks at Brandy Lake resident pointed her index finger. “You belong in the country or you belong at a small airport. You’re not going to disturb these beautiful homes. The beautiful people. The babies. The people who were in the service who will be disturbed by hearing that sound. You don’t belong in our neighborhood. We don’t want you. I wish you well with your business. But take your heliport to somewhere in the country or to another airport. We don’t want you.”

Samantha Ryan, leader of the community opposition to the helipad, who met with Riegl, Jr. at the company's new Bauhaus-influenced headquarters on Monday, spoke of the president’s sense of entitlement, his attitude that development in Winter Garden was “inevitable” and that community residents would simply have to live with it.

Company spokesperson Miranda Welky has denied that version of the conversation. After the meeting, Riegl, Jr. described it to VoxPopuli as a “miscommunication.”

Meanwhile at least one attendee was unhappy about what he wasn't hearing. 

“Tell us why it’s important,” demanded Blake Price of Oaks at Brandy Lake. “Tell us why it’s not just a convenience for you. Tell us why it matters. Because it matters to us. So why does it matter to fight with us? If there’s a helipad 20 minutes away, why can’t you fly 20 minutes away and drive in? I can’t park my car on my front lawn. The city won’t let me. Even though it’s more convenient.”

Van Rens said something about needing helicopters when trees required trimming, then moved on to another questioner. In his opening remarks, Van Rens made a point of saying that the company did not shuttle people to and from the airport. However, when Riegl USA announced it was moving its headquarters to Winter Garden, the trade magazine xyht reported that “customers and integrators will be able to stop by at the new facility using a helicopter-landing pad, which will become operational in early 2021.”

Riegl USA’s project manager Steve Aldridge attempted to clarify the situation by explaining that the company hadn't just sprung a secret helipad project on the community; it had actually had been in the works for more than two years with city planners’ knowledge. That backfired almost immediately as residents realized they'd been kept in the dark for far longer than originally thought. 

One woman who did not give her name, said she was “absolutely not happy” that the city knew about the helipad plans two years ago. “Why are we just finding out today or recently?" she asked, irate. "There are articles talking about it a long time ago? There’s no excuse for homeowners to be finding out about it now.”

A check of public records shows that city planners were aware that Riegl USA “may request to build a heliport in the future,” pending FAA approval, at least as far back as the Development Review Committee meeting on July 31, 2019. Prior to the community outcry, city staff had recommended approval of the helipad, and it had been put on the agenda twice for a commission vote in October. Scheduling conflicts prompted Riegl USA to request two postponements, Riegl, Jr. told VoxPopuli.  

Those plans are grounded for the moment. 

As the crowd filtered out at the end of the meeting, Riegl, Jr., told VoxPopuli that he hoped some "misinformation" had been cleared up and that he had a better grasp of residents’ concerns and frustrations. 

“We understand [the helipad] has been too close to some of the homes, and we want to find a better way,” he said. The company was “looking at all options,” he said, but the goal was to move the helipad away from the residential areas.

“Yes, that is the goal,” he said. “Of course, that is the goal.”

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