(July 13, 2018) Ocean City government is looking for the legal means to control where aircraft may land in the resort, following a helicopter’s surprise landing last Tuesday in St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church parking lot on 17th Street.
Police went to the area around 8 p.m. after being advised of the chopper’s presence and questioned pilot Casey Love with Charm City Helicopters. Police also quickly discovered, apparently, that the resort has no laws governing aircraft landings.
Consequently, police were unable to charge Michael and Erin Rucco of Baltimore and three other passengers who chartered the flight, and thus had no grounds to prevent them from driving away in a 2013 BMW.
City Manager Doug Miller told the City Council during its work session on Monday the city received no advance notification of the flight plan.
“The pilot had permission of the property owner … but because this is a unique situation we need to know what our legal rights were or were not,” he said.
Ocean City Airport Manager Jamie Giandomenico said the landing was pre-coordinated with the property owner, without the airport being informed.
“There really wasn’t any FAA rules that were broken,” he said. “The question is moving forward how to handle this in the future.”
The timing of the landing also was problematic, Giandomenico said, because police and fire department personnel had to maintain pedestrian and traffic safety during the height of summer.
“On that particular ramp-up to the holiday, it was pretty disruptive and not really well thought out,” he said.
After conferring with other city departments, Giandomenico found no associated restrictions in the town code.
“In terms of the city, there is no language that specifically prohibits that kind of activity,” he said. “The operator in this case may have seen no specific prohibition and assumed it was okay to carry on with the flight.”
In addition to examining potential zoning ordinances, the city could either create a specific prohibition or leave the issue alone for now.
“Obviously, we got a taste of what uncoordinated activity looks like downtown,” he said.
Giandomenico said the pilot landed and took off without incident, while noting the location did meet the FAA helicopter landing space requirement of 1.3 times the rotor diameter.
“I don’t think you would consider it careless or reckless [but] it was a little tight,” he said. “It might not have been my first choice, but there was demand for it and they coordinated with the property owners.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said although the disruptive nature of the landing was obvious, undue restrictions could prove troublesome later.
“There may be buildings that are built in the future that would want to have a helipad on it,” he said.
Hartman made a motion for Giandomenico to consult with emergency management and zoning officials to develop recommendations.
“Come back with something that would prohibit something as disruptive as a crowded downtown street, but we could have a helicopter land in Ocean City if someone desired,” he said.
Councilman Dennis Dare asked why a helicopter would need to land in Ocean City when the airport is within minutes of town.
“I think the pilot was irresponsible,” he said. “He put not only his life in danger, he put his passengers in danger, and hundreds of other people in that area,” he said.
Dare added that the FAA has a host of safety regulations regarding helicopter landing zones that would eliminate most locations within the resort.
“The FAA does regulate this only to the point while it’s in air,” he said. “The landing is ours to regulate.”
Pointing out that a helicopter landing zone is not a specified allowable use under city zoning codes, Dare also felt the police should have issued a citation.
“The thing should have been put on a flat bed and taken out of town … not taking off and endangering people,” he said. “With our density, it’s a no-brainer for me.”
Giandomenico said a number of Maryland municipalities, most notably Easton, have addressed the topic.
“Their code is very clear and prohibits that activity in the city,” he said. “That’s certainly a direction you could go in.”
Giandomenico said there’s no way to know if the resort will see a spate of similar incidents.
“The suitability of the space was at the bare minimum for what’s acceptable,” he said. “This is the first time this has bubbled up [but] it may be indictive for that type of amenity.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight expressed her concerns after witnessing the helicopter take off from 17th Street.
“The airport is within two minutes, so there’s no need for it,” she said. “I think it’s pretty clear cut what we should do.”
The council voted unanimously to have Giandomenico consult with the city solicitor, emergency management and zoning and bring recommendations to the next council work session.