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Mich. Voters OK Noisy Remote Planes

June 20, 2002

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EMPIRE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) _ Along with goldfinch chirps and the neighing of draft horses, another sound may be heard soon at Tom Cyr’s farm: the buzz of remote-controlled model airplanes.

In a referendum Tuesday, residents of this Leelanau County community decided the miniature planes could be flown here, subject to noise limits and other regulations. The 188-140 vote followed a bitter campaign that polarized the rural community.

``There are a lot of hurt feelings,″ said township Clerk Chris Neiswonger. ``If you were fighting over a nuclear power plant it would be worth it, but it’s a shame to let something of this nature break up our community.″

Critics say the planes, which typically have wingspans of about six feet and weigh up to eight pounds, emit an annoying, high-pitched whine. They say the sound carries for long distances above the wind-swept hillsides a few miles from Lake Michigan.

``It grates on you. It’s similar to listening to your neighbor weed-whacking all day,″ said Cyr, a leader of the opposition, whose farm is adjacent to the field where members of the Traverse Area Model Pilots Society want to enjoy their hobby.

Members of the airplane group and township officials say the noise is no worse than that made by automobile traffic or lawn mowers.

``What’s noise to one person isn’t necessarily noise to another,″ said township Supervisor Bill Bolton, one of several board members who observed a flight demonstration by group members at the field last fall. ``We didn’t feel it was so terrible.″

Controversy over model planes isn’t unique to this community. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year banned them from the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in New York, saying they could be disruptive to migratory birds and visitors.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., complaints about noise and possible safety hazards have prompted officials to look for sites where the planes can be flown over agricultural land, spokesman Chuck Suits said.

For years, the Traverse Area pilots group flew the planes _ controlled by a hand-held radio transmitter _ over a field south of Traverse City. But when the field was sold, members sought a new location.

The group leased a 120-acre parcel in Empire Township in spring 2001. Township officials say they received complaints after the nearly 40-member group held its annual air show, which drew a big crowd.

The township board ordered the group to stop its flights but later amended the zoning ordinance to allow them under certain conditions: The parcel from which they are launched must be at least 100 acres, an area big enough to contain 75 football fields. No more than two planes can be in the air at one time, and the noise level at the edge of the land parcel can be no louder than 65 decibels. A chain saw emits 110 decibels and a lawn mower 100 decibels, officials said. The planes will fly no more than four days a week, never on Sunday.

``We honestly feel we can address the noise issue so we will not disturb the neighbors,″ said Mark Hamlyn, president of the model pilots society. Most of the critics do not know what a radio-controlled model plane sounds like and have exaggerated fears, he said.

Opponents like Sue Putman, who lives a short distance from the field, said the noise was so bad last year that she could hardly stand to be in her yard.

``I was outside trying to hang up clothes and it was so irritating I had to come in and throw them in the dryer,″ she said. ``It even drowned out the TV.″

Amending the zoning ordinance to accommodate the planes could obligate the township to make concessions to other groups, opponents argued.

``If the next group is the Hell’s Angels wanting to put in a race track ... I don’t see how they’d stop it,″ Cyr said.

The question on Tuesday’s ballot was whether to retain the zoning ordinance amendment approved by the township board. Now that the change has been upheld, the model pilots society still must prove it can meet the ordinance requirements before getting a permit to fly its planes.

Hamlyn said he was confident the group would qualify.

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