After weighing the evidence, Randy Wilson, Plumas County Planning Director, decided that a heliport is permitted on the Genesee Valley Ranch, and indeed on all lands zoned as agricultural preserve in Plumas County.
Wilson determined June 30 that, “Other owners of other lands zoned agricultural preserve and in agricultural use within Plumas County have a similar right to use a helicopter and a helipad for agricultural and personal use.”
Wilson added that heliports are permitted on agricultural lands only if the heliport is not used for public or commercial purposes.
The Palmaz property in Genesee Valley is a 1,476-acre cattle ranch with several residences and accessory buildings, including the Genesee Store. The ranch is located southeast of Taylorsville.
The Palmaz family’s desire to have heliports near their homes has resulted in controversies in both Napa and Plumas counties.
Is a heliport an airport?
In relation to the Genesee Valley Special Management Area plan, Wilson determined that a heliport is different from an airport.
The Genesee plan states that an airport is not allowed in Genesee Valley. However, Wilson said, the Genesee plan and the county general plan do not define an airport.
However, Wilson noted that county code does define an airport as a publicly owned property.
Wilson concluded, “A heliport is not by definition an airport and therefore a heliport is not prohibited by the Genesee Valley Special Management Area plan.”
Wilson noted, however, that the county general plan does require that owners of private airstrips and helipads comply with county land use policies and consult with the Plumas County Airport Land Use Commission in regards to “setbacks, height or land use restrictions.”
However, Wilson said that George Terhune, chairman of the Airport Land Use Commission, determined that there was no need for an ALUC review because the Genesee Valley Ranch heliport is not located near any county owned airport.
Wilson added that the owners of the Genesee Valley Ranch have met all applicable state and federal permitting requirements for the heliport.
Is a helicopter the functional equivalent of a truck?
Wilson determined that the Palmaz family helicopter is the functional equivalent of other agricultural equipment because it is being used for agricultural purposes.
He said these uses include aerial mapping, pasture management, transporting materials, aiding construction, aerial seeding, aerial fertilizing, powerline maintenance, managing fire risk and monitoring irrigation flows.
Wilson determined that the Genesee Valley Ranch’s use of a private helicopter is similar to the use of a tractor or a truck. He noted that all three provide transportation for owners and property managers and as vehicles to monitor cattle and other ranching land uses.
Wilson found that a lack of historical precedence for the use of a helicopter in agriculture in Plumas County was not a requirement for their use today. He noted that new technologies continually evolve in agriculture.
“At one time, horse-drawn agricultural equipment was common in Plumas County and the use of a tractor was an innovation. Now the reverse is true,” Wilson said.
Wilson concluded that while employment of helicopters is not common in Plumas County, a determination of equivalent use is not dependent upon a use being common in a given area.
Wilson used the terms “functional equivalence” and “appurtenance” interchangeably.
Plumas County code defines “appurtenance” as “a use, building or activity, which is a functional part of the use.”
Was the hangar for the heliport properly permitted and inspected?
The owners of Genesee Valley Ranch obtained a building permit for a “barn and storage building” through the planning department.
Wilson determined that the structure that the Palmaz family built was constructed and inspected to the same building code “occupancy class” as a hangar.
Was an environmental review needed?
Wilson determined that an environmental review was not needed to construct the Genesee Valley Ranch heliport because the decision taken by a planning director is a ministerial action. Wilson argued that ministerial actions are exempt from environmental review according to the California Environmental Quality Act.
At any rate, Wilson pointed out that the hangar at the Genesee Valley Ranch was constructed on a previously disturbed pasture site and is served by a preexisting road.
A ministerial action “involv[es] little or no personal judgment by the public official as to the wisdom or manner of carrying out the project,” according to CEQA.
Appealing the decision
Wilson said that any owner of real property within 300 feet of the exterior boundaries of the Genesee Valley Ranch, who was present at the original planning hearing concerning the heliport, who presented written testimony to Wilson concerning the heliport or who the board of supervisors determines to have been adversely affected by his decision can appeal his decision to the board of supervisors.
Appeals had to be in writing to the clerk of the board of supervisors within 10 calendar days after Wilson’s decision. The current fee for an appeal is $770.