Tour Firm Wants to Visit Last Royal Gardens Resident
by Dave Smith
A helicopter tour company is looking to provide its customers with an unforgettable perspective on geologic hazards.
How? By providing an up-close-and-personal visit to one of the more durable survivors of the onslaught of the eruption from Kilauea volcano.
Paradise Helicopters is seeking permission from the county to land its aircraft at one of the most isolated homes on the Big Island – the residence of Jack Thompson.
Thompson, who enjoys a panoramic view of the lava plain and the coastline below, is the last remaining resident of Royal Gardens, a subdivision ravaged by lava flows emanating from Kilauea’s east rift zone.
Royal Gardens was established on the slopes of Kilauea in 1973. Nearly all of the homes built on its 1,617 one-acre lots have been destroyed.
Lava has also covered all access roads to the once idyllic subdivision. That means Thompson must walk three miles to get to his home from what remains of Highway 130.
According to the environmental assessment prepared by Geometrician Associates, the helicopters would land on a landing pad set up within a 100-foot square clearing on Thompson’s one-acre property, which borders Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Up to 24 passengers a day would visit Thompson’s property for “an up-close look at the stark contrast of the lava inundation in an area of tropical beauty with scenic vistas of the ocean,” the study said.
According to the study, the stops will also provide Thompson with some income from the tour company that would help compensate him for the lack of road access.
Paradise Helicopters has made stops there in the past but stopped the practice after being told by the Hawaii County Planning Department that a Special Permit was needed. The department said the permit, which would be issued by the Windward Planning Commission, is necessary because any flights there likely would have to fly over areas carrying a conservation designation. The EA was prepared as part of the application for the Special Permit.
In response to a request from Geometrician for comments on the plan, Andrea Kaawaloa-Okita of the Kalapana Fishing Council said the group is concerned about helicopter tour activity.
“The island does not need to further exploit remote and inaccessible areas for use by tourist clientele,” she said.
In another comment published with the study, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando expressed concern about the impacts from landings close to the park’s boundaries because of noise and prop wash from the chopper rotors.
The study noted that helicopter tour flights often fly over the area because of its scenery anyway, and Paradise’s flight patterns would be essentially the same without landing at Thompson’s house. It also noted that the park itself uses helicopters for resource management.
The environmental study also notes that noise generated by helicopter tours has generated complaints in the past, and that issue is being dealt with through the National Park’s Air Tour Management Plan process.
And in this case when it comes to noise, there are no neighbors to complain. According to the EA, there are no occupied homes within two miles.
When asked by Geometrician to comment on Paradise Helicopter’s proposal, Hawaii County Civil Defense said the area is “perpetually under threat from lava inundation.” However, Quince Mento, the Civil Defense director at the time, added that the risk was not significant enough for the agency to recommend that the landings be prohibited.
According to the EA, Paradise pilots would not land if the area is under imminent threat from a lava flow.
According to scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, that threat persists. An active lava flow is currently about 2,000 feet above Thompson’s residence, although it is too soon to tell whether it will continue on that track.
The EA also notes that a landing at Thompson’s house may not be possible in the future.
“It is recognized that the lava from Kilauea Volcano may destroy Mr. Thompson’s home within a matter of months to years, after which landings at the site would have little or no reason to continue,” the study said.
“Until that time, however, the landings would offer visitors a unique experience, including an unforgettable perspective on geologic hazard.”