Noise issue incites furor in Saint-Tropez

 - August 29, 2008, 1:26 PM

Residents of the Saint-Tropez gulf, on the French Riviera, are threatening to block helipads and the road through Saint-Tropez if the city does not make progress on addressing helicopter noise. Every summer, wealthy visitors to Saint-Tropez make extensive use of helicopters, either private or chartered, to bypass traffic jams on the busy roads. Residents contend that existing noise rules are not being enforced, while operators complain that local mayors have failed to deliver on promises to build proper helipads in agreed areas.

“The situation has improved slightly, with overflights taking place a bit higher, since we have started becoming more vocal,” Jean-Claude Molho, president of resident association Halte Hélico, told AIN. The association has installed noise measurement devices at “places where no low-altitude overflight should be seen.” It claims to have measured 70 decibels regularly.

According to Molho, the 450-member organization is not asking for new rules; rather it is requesting that authorities enforce existing rules. Those rules call for “using helisurfaces between 10 a.m. and noon and 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. and making no overflights lower than 3,000 feet,” he said. In addition, the association wants operators to comply with the movement limit of 10 aircraft per helisurface per day.
There are at least 40 unprepared areas (heli-surfaces, under the French official designation) owned by individuals in the gulf. So far, there is only one proper helipad (“helistation”), in Grimaud.

According to Thierry Couderc, executive director of the UFH helicopter lobby in France, Halte Hélico’s estimates of helicopter activity are inflated. “When they talk about 300 aircraft movements, the same helicopter has certainly been counted twice or more. There are about 60 aircraft movements a day, at most, at a busy helisurface,” he said. He emphasized that the operators who draw local residents’ ire for transporting wealthy visitors are often the same operators who fight fires.

Michel de Rohozinski, CEO of Azur Hélicoptère, said his company complies with the rules governing hours of operation. But he made it clear he would not do so if the owner of a helisurface told him, “Use my place anytime.” He maintains that the existing rules are unworkable, especially because vacationers never start lunch before 1 p.m.

He blames the current situation on the French mayors who have failed to agree on building public helicopter facilities for the wealthy tourists. He estimated passenger traffic at an annual 20,000 in the gulf. “If there is another of these meetings [with the subprefect, the mayors and the local residents], I’ll go just to say it is the last one I attend,” he groused.

In a 2006 agreement signed by helicopter operators and local authorities, the cities of Gassin, Grimaud, Ramatuelle and Saint-Tropez were supposed to build another three helistations by the summer of 2007. These would have replaced the much more numerous helisurfaces. However, no decision has yet been made regarding construction of a single helipad.

Local mayors blame the March 2008 municipal elections– and preparation for them–for the delay. In Saint-Tropez’s municipal magazine, the new mayor pledges his team will “ensure everyone respects his neighbors, notably in terms of noise.”
However, in the June edition, the first one since the election, there was no mention of the helicopter noise issue. In Ramatuelle, old proposals for a floating helipad have resurfaced recently.

Françoise Souliman is the local state authority in charge of the case. Under the 2006 agreement, she is supposed to act as a referee and push for the adoption of the requests expressed. At press time, she was about to order the closure of one helisurface because it has violated the movements limit. The state police force had counted more than 20 aircraft movements a day there, well above the allowed 10.

As Claude Sabonadière, a representative of the DGAC civil aviation authority on the Riviera, noted, ATC does not count aircraft movements on a helisurface, which is why it is difficult to enforce the rule.

“How could an operator know that his competitor has already used the same helisurface 10 times on that day?” he pointed out. The subprefect is therefore trying to have helisurface owners take responsibility for counting movements.

Closing a helisurface is obviously a serious penalty. However, to some it seems to be the only one available. Other options are fines, currently set at ?38 (less than $60) or revoking one pilot’s authorization to use all helisurfaces, which is hardly fair unless he is a proven repeat offender.