Thursday, May 3, 2007

Helicopters buzzing over Franklin Park are no flight of fancy for many

Helicopters buzzing over Franklin Park are no flight of fancy for many

Community activists and residents from Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Dorchester converged in Franklin Park’s Golf Clubhouse Tuesday night for a public hearing, sponsored by the Boston City Council’s Aviation and Transportation Committee, regarding fears that a helicopter landing pad has been proposed for the area.

The rumored helipad in question would cover a substantial part of Franklin Park’s flat surface, which is currently set aside for athletics.

City Councilors Charles Yancey, Chuck Turner and John Tobin heard testimony from Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent Rafael Ruiz, BPD Superintendent Robert Dunford, Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Toni Pollack. The testimony from all three indicated that there is not now – nor has there ever been – a plan to build a helipad within Franklin Park or any of Boston’s other green spaces.

Concern over the helipad arose following newspaper reports suggesting the proposal. Speculation further escalated after a state police helicopter landed in Franklin Park to pick up a Boston Police Department passenger during a homicide investigation.

According to Dunford, there have "only been three landings ever" in Franklin Park – all of which were for the purpose of State Police helicopters picking up Boston Police Department "observers." When questioned about why Franklin Park was used for picking up these officers, Dunford cited "convenience" as the primary motivation.

Yancey didn’t think convenience was a good enough excuse for landing a helicopter without permission from the parks department, the Franklin Park Zoo or any other organization involved with the Emerald Necklace. It was a sentiment echoed by Councilor Turner, who requested a guarantee from the BPD that Franklin Park would not be used in the future for helicopter landing without express permission.

Although the prospect of a helipad physically being built in Franklin Park was dismissed as hearsay at the meeting, community leaders were unable to get a promise from the police that helicopters would not land there in the future. Although, at one point, Dunford stated that helicopters would land in Franklin Park "only in the case of an emergency," he also defined the situation in which a Boston Police officer was picked up by State Police for the aforementioned homicide investigation as an emergency situation.

Christine Poff, director of the Franklin Park Coalition also spoke at the hearing. Explaining the regular use of Franklin Park for sports and community activities, she declared, on behalf of a supporter, "I would support landings [in Franklin Park] only if they do an equal amount of landings in the Boston Public Gardens."

Poff then cited Article 97 of the Massachusetts State Constitution, which states, "the people… have the freedom from unnecessary noise," which helicopters would make in the neighborhood, and further added that, "Lands and easements taken or acquired for such purposes shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of except by laws enacted by a two thirds vote, taken by yeas and nays, of each branch of the general court." Poff said she assumed that no vote was taken and, as such, the park couldn’t be used for helicopter landings.

Although the prospect of a helipad in Franklin Park may have been stamped out for good (Yancey found no funding for helipad construction anywhere in Boston in the annual budget), the meeting opened up the larger issue of helicopters over the city.

While police insisted that there would be no regular helicopter patrols of Boston’s neighborhoods, citizens complained of the persistent use of helicopters in their communities.

James E. Gilbert, Jr., a lifelong Bostonian of 95 years, testified that "helicopters are much more disturbing than planes," due to their being closer to the ground.

Eisa-Maria Mahta, a Los Angeles native who now resides in Boston, also complained of the noise.

"There was no peace where I grew up," she said of LA, where helicopters patrol the city daily. When she came to Boston for college, "there was peace" – a peace now disrupted by both State Police and media helicopters.

The council’s committee has adjourned its meeting until Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis gives them, in writing, a statement regarding the department’s future plans for helicopter landings.

This story first appeared in The Boston Bulletin on May 3, 2007.