MANATEE -- The Manatee County Planning Commission voted 4-2 Thursday to recommend approval of a controversial helistop at The Concession Golf Club in the face of fierce opposition by many residents in Panther Ridge, a neighboring equestrian community.
Planning Commissioners Matt Bower and Timothy Rhoades dissented.
The Manatee County Commission will vote May 5 on the helistop.
"Disappointment -- in one word," said Panther Ridge resident Maggie Boyer after the vote. "But we're not licked yet. ... In other words, we're not beaten yet."
Boyer was one of many citizens who voiced worries about helicopter noise and safety concerns for themselves and their horses, who spook easily with noise.
Owners of The Concession Golf Club east of Lakewood Ranch between State Road 70 and University Parkway, submitted plans for the helistop to Manatee County in March 2015.
According to the Manatee County land development code, a helistop is any designated landing area, but without parking, waiting room, fueling or maintenance equipment.
In October, The Concession's owners amended their application by adding a noise study. A Sept. 1 study by Keane Acoustics of Oldsmar measured the sound of a helicopter flown east from the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. It concluded passing fixed-wing aircraft, lawn mowers and delivery trucks made more noise than a helicopter.
Deborah Lynch, who has lived in Panther Ridge for 11 years, expressed concern for the horses in Panther Ridge.
"I don't know if any of you are familiar with horses at all. They're an animal that you cannot anticipate how
they're going to react to something startling and that's really, really dangerous for the animals and the riders," the 44-year-old said. "It's bad on so many levels."
Ed Vogler, attorney for the applicant, defended the request, saying a helistop is a permitted use and the request does not include parking, a waiting room or the ability to fuel a helicopter.
"The biggest noise generator at the golf course are mowers and blowers, and in the case of this particular test that was done, it was the delivery by a UPS truck that caused the greatest spike in noise," the attorney said of the Keane Acoustics study. "It wasn't the helicopter engine or rotors."
Vogler said his team has read and "totally, totally respect" the concerns expressed by residents regarding noise impact on quality of life, livestock and horses.
The attorney told the planning commission The Concession is a place for serious golfers.
"There's only a very small number of guests and members that might use the privilege of a helicopter, but the experience of a first-class golf venue is critically important to all the rest of the members," he said. "We would do nothing, ever, that would affect the golf experience -- this is demonstrated by no homes on the golf course. This golf experience is tranquil, remote, quiet, reflective and enjoyable. We value the experience of our members above all other things, and our experience of our members is not going to be affected by this request."
Cindy and Ronnie Bray, a married couple and residents of the Foxwood neighborhood in Panther Ridge, spoke up during public comment after handing out flyers to neighbors about Thursday's vote.
"Our equestrian neighborhood of Panther Ridge was there first. It's not just houses and horses. This is a premier equestrian area," said Cindy Bray, 58. "We moved from Virginia Beach, Virginia, three years ago. We looked extensively all up and down the East Coast and then ended up in Florida and brought our two horses. You will not find another place like this anywhere -- maybe not even in the state of Florida."
Ronnie Bray said he likes working and living in Manatee County.
"What I'm concerned about is the safety of my wife, my grandkids and my neighbors," the 57-year-old said. "If this is approved, is the county going to be responsible when somebody gets hurt? Is Concession going to be responsible? Who is responsible when this is passed and somebody, God forbid, does get hurt? And that is my big issue."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.