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Winter Garden homeowners fight Riegl USA's proposal to build helipad in their backyard

Instant Photo Poster
Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, November 25, 2021


Courtesy of Ken Alessi

A Riegl USA helicopter flies over the Oaks at Brandy Lake neighborhood.

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Few things rouse the ire of suburban homeowners more than disrupting the tranquil idyll they’ve carved out for themselves against the chaos of daily life. Try it and they will band together for a fight.

Earlier this year, three Winter Garden communities rallied against excess noise from dump trucks rumbling down Marsh Road. This week, residents from three more Winter Garden communities joined in an attempt to stop laser-scanning technology company Riegl USA, a new addition to Winter Garden’s business community, from building a helicopter-landing pad adjacent to their neighborhoods. With the helipad, as the trade magazine xyHt reported, Riegl USA’s “customers and integrators will be able to stop by at the new facility.”

The city is currently reviewing Riegl USA’s proposal for the helipad. A community meeting is scheduled for Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at Winter Garden City Hall for city staff to hear from the residents of the communities — more than 500 homes in Brandy Creek, Oaks at Brandy Lake and Hyde Park— that are most likely to be impacted.

“I’m not against a helicopter per se but certainly one that would land and take off in a residential area. Even if they’re zoned commercial, they neighbor that,” said Ron Mueller, city commissioner for Winter Garden’s District 2 where Riegl USA and the affected communities are located. He said he’s met with close to 70 residents expressing concern about the helipad and received another two dozen dismayed emails on top of that.

Gathered in a Brandy Creek cul-de-sac, on Tuesday afternoon, across a bucolic lake from Riegl USA’s Bauhaus-inspired headquarters, 18 residents from Brandy Creek and Oaks of Brandy Lake had plenty to say about what the presence of helicopter traffic will do to their lives. They experienced a preview when one of Riegl USA’s helicopters was flying around the area Nov. 12-15.

“It was so loud,” said Lynn Fitzgerald, who’s lived in Brandy Creek for nearly 22 years. “I’m at the top of the subdivision, and I could hear it at my house. The first thing you think is that something is happening in your neighborhood, a police action or whatever. It wasn’t that at all. When I looked out, I could see [the helicopter] over the lake, just having a ball.”

Ryan Owens of Oaks at Brandy Lake said when he heard the helicopter hovering over his home, he told his son and a playmate to stick close to the house. “I didn’t know if it was an accident or if the police were following somebody. It does cause fear.”

“When you’re at home and you hear a helicopter overhead, what’s your first thought?” added Kimble Bronson of Brandy Creek. “The police? They’re looking for a criminal or something?”

Roberto Sanchez, wearing a Vietnam Veteran’s cap, waited patiently to share his thoughts.

“I’m a disabled veteran. These helicopters going over my home at 100 feet or less triggers a lot of thoughts and memories that I don’t want to deal with,” said the Purple Heart-recipient who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. “I don’t think this is appropriate for a residential area.” The Brandy Creek resident plans to be at the Nov. 30 meeting. “Hopefully we’ll defeat their application process.”

Traffic accidents are another big concern as rubbernecking drivers watch helicopters rather than the road.

“This intersection of Avalon, Tildenville Road and 50 is one of the only throughways to Horizon West, and the traffic already backs up significantly to turn left at that traffic light,” explained Julie Bronson, a Brandy Creek Homeowners Association board member. “There are multiple accidents out here all the time. Now if you land a helicopter in the middle of that, can you imagine what that’s going to do to drivers?”

Lastly, residents are afraid of the environmental impact that helicopter traffic could have on the delicate ecosystems around Brandy Lake, which is managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District.

“We have a lot of wildlife here. We have conservation areas, we have herons, we have cranes, we have alligators, we have bobcats. Bald eagles are here. That will be destroyed,” said Ken Alessi of Oaks at Brandy Lake.

Greg McAteer’s blue Brandy Creek house practically backs up to the lake. He bought it just for the birding. “My favorite thing to do is to sit on my patio and watch the osprey hunt. There are six or seven of them, a couple of bald eagles too. I’ll watch for hours. With a helipad there, that’s not going to happen anymore.”

Riegl USA said the company has “initiated the process” for a wildlife study, but had no timeline for when it might take place.

Given the strong community opposition, Mueller said he’s promoting the idea of helping the company find a better spot for the helipad.

“The most prudent thing Riegl can do is to withdraw their application and let us review their other light industrial areas as a better alternative. That would be the best path forward.”

Emphasizing that the company wanted to be a good neighbor, Riegl USA spokeswoman Miranda Welky said the proposed helipad was intended only for occasional use but relocating it was a possibility.

“We are open to consult with our development team to find out if there is a better suitable spot on our property, to meet our neighbors request for more distance to their houses,” she said.

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