Helicopter firm gets OK for Athol site

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Courtesy photo Timberline Helicopters, which offers firefighting, logging and ski lift construction services, plans to move from Sandpoint to the Athol area. The company has received approval for a conditional-use permit from Kootenai County for an airstrip and helicopter pads on the west side of U.S. 95 between the Chilco Mill and Silverwood Theme Park. This photo was taken during a fire in Pony, Mont., between Butte and Bozeman a few years ago.

ATHOL — A growing Sandpoint-based helicopter company that offers firefighting, logging and ski lift construction operations plans to land in Kootenai County.

Timberline Helicopters has received conditional-use permit approval for an airstrip and helicopter pads on 93 acres in a rural zone on the west side of Highway 95 between the Chilco Mill and Silverwood Theme Park.

Travis Storro, chief operating officer, said the company plans to build more than $3 million in supporting facilities at the site, including an office building, maintenance shops, painting areas and storage.

Storro said the timing of the move depends on several factors, including permits and construction.

"My best guess is that it will be at least three years before we can transition our operation to the new location, but that's only a guess," Storro said.

The site will serve as the maintenance hub for the company's helicopters, which totals five today and could reach seven by the end of the year.

"This will be where they come to get TLC to make sure they are tight and right to go to work," Storro said. "Most of these operate in California doing powerline construction and firefighting, while one is used to build ski lifts during the summer and another is drying cherries near Wenatchee."

The company does not conduct passenger-carrying operations such as tours or charters.

Timberline's interest in moving here became known as "Project Bird" among economic development officials as it was exploring possibilities but hadn't publicly announced its plan.

Some neighboring residents during the public hearing process said they had concerns about the noise of the operation, but Storro told county commissioners the ambient noise generated by traffic on U.S. 95 is about the same level and more constant. Trains also already travel along the corridor.

Storro said the helicopter takeoffs and landings are infrequent because the birds are in other areas on missions most of the time and there won't be such activity at night.

"In 2016 we only flew our aircraft at the Sandpoint facility 22 days and that total included 71 total landings," he said. "When compared to trucks on the highway, or especially motorcycles, I doubt anyone would notice our helicopters taking off or landing on the days we conduct flight operations.

"The best thing we can do to be good neighbors with regard to the sound of the aircraft is to fly neighborly (including following already noisy routes and flying no lower than necessary)."

County Commissioner Marc Eberlein said since the company's future depends on having a secure headquarters, he believes it will keep the neighbors in mind.

"They have reason to be respectful of neighbors," he said.

Timberline was founded in 2007 in Laclede, Idaho, and moved near the Sandpoint airport in 2011. It has grown to 50 employees and plans to grow to about 75 in the next five years.

Last year the company received Federal Aviation Administration approval to convert former military Blackhawk helicopters for civilian uses. The process takes about 6,000 man hours per aircraft.

"Growth in this program is one of the major driving factors to find a new location and construct new facilities," Storro said.

Storro said the company hopes future operations include operating Chinook helicopters, but space constraints in Sandpoint make it difficult to pursue that avenue.

"We believe (the move) will be a very positive thing in bringing jobs, economic growth and opportunity to Kootenai County," Storro said.

Storro said the company was also interested in the Athol-area site because it is centrally located, has ample space, would allow the firm to draw from a larger workforce as it expands, and it has outgrown its Sandpoint operation that is spread out in differing locations.

"It's horrifically inefficient," he said of the existing situation.

Storro said some employees already live in the Coeur d'Alene area and commute to Sandpoint.

He said a private airstrip is required under county zoning rules to construct maintenance hangars on the property.

"We don't even have an airplane that can land there, but by the zoning rules, this is the method to obtain approval," he said.

The conditional-use permit still needs FAA approval. A sale of the property is contingent upon that permit.

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