Flying Fracas

Brecksville grounds a business barnstormer

Fight or flight: Burke airport is the temporary home of - McCabe's chopper. - Walter  Novak
Fight or flight: Burke airport is the temporary home of McCabe's chopper.
Ed McCabe is a big, rock-solid guy with a craggy face and a commanding, growly voice. He's his own boss -- the owner of a construction and engineering firm -- and not the kind of person who enjoys being told what to do.

So if he wants to park his helicopter on the 15 acres around his house, he thinks the City of Brecksville ought to let him do it.

"It's just like my personal car," he says. "It gives me the ability to travel where I want to, when I want to -- in a safe manner, I might add."

But commuting to Columbus, Detroit, and Pittsburgh in a three-bladed Enstrom F-28 attracts a little more attention than hopping in a car and driving. And so McCabe is sitting in a meeting room in Brecksville City Hall on a Thursday night, waiting to speak to the planning commission -- as are a number of city residents who don't want McCabe, or any other helicopter owner, landing in their neighborhood. And come November, all of Brecksville may get to weigh in on the issue.

McCabe, president of McCabe Engineering, bought his helicopter about a year ago. Some of his clients own helicopters, and he was impressed at how easily they got around. He uses his F-28 primarily to get to work sites in other cities, driving his car to his company's offices in Richfield and Garfield Heights.

About six months ago, he says, he started landing in the field behind his house. He'd fly in and out twice a week or so, sometimes keeping the copter there for a couple days. "No neighbors ever complained," he claims. "Plenty of [them] think it's a great idea."

But a few months ago, someone who lives near McCabe told the city council president about the aerial traffic. McCabe says the complaint came from a "whiny citizen -- whiny with a capital W," who was actually trying to keep him from building "a horse barn which might also house the helicopter."

Council quickly passed an emergency ordinance regulating landings and banning the "parking and storage" of helicopters in the city. But in Brecksville, as in many Cleveland suburbs, all changes in land use have to be approved by voters. So council asked the planning commission for advice on whether to propose a total ban on helicopter landings in residential areas and place it on the November ballot.

The subject draws about 20 people to the Thursday night planning commission meeting. Most of the speakers say they're worried that helicopters would be a safety risk and bring noise to quiet neighborhoods.

A planning commissioner asks the audience whether any of them have heard McCabe's helicopter. But no one can say for sure. "We hear helicopters," says Malcolm MacKay, who lives near McCabe. "But I don't know where they come from, and I don't know who they belong to."

Pam Middaugh, a crisply dressed woman who lives about a half-mile from McCabe, says helicopter noise already wakes her up on some mornings, and she doesn't want it to increase. "My husband and I joked about it. We heard this helicopter, and we said, Maybe someone in the neighborhood owns a helicopter. It sounds so ludicrous. But in fact, it's true."

McCabe speaks a total of seven times at the meeting. He contends that the noise residents are hearing probably comes from medical and traffic flights that use nearby I-77 as a corridor. His property is big enough, he insists, to land on without problems.

"I would almost bet money that most of the people complaining own less land, if they added all their property up, compared to what I own," he adds.

McCabe even wields the ultimate threat -- to turn his property into a subdivision if he's banned from landing there. "Really, you're giving me two options: use my property as I bought it to do, or develop it and let half-acre lots be built there," he says.

But the anti-chopper crowd doesn't let up. "My husband traveled for 30-some years by car. Many a day, he would have liked to have had a helicopter," says Janet Naylor, who lives about two miles from McCabe, near the Ohio Turnpike. "But one of the reasons we moved out here was because it's such a quaint little town. Are we going to give up the whole historic [character of] Brecksville for everyone that wants quick and easy transportation?"

After McCabe and his opponents have left, the planning commissioners discuss the proposed ban. Most sound ready to support it. And other city officials agree.

"I realize it is a singular case," says Council President Nora Murphy. "But if this would be the wave of the future, and other people would want helicopters, then we definitely should address the issue now. I do think it's a safety measure."

"It's an unnecessary risk to expose residents to," says Brecksville Law Director Paul Grau, "just because somebody decides it's a fun way to get to work."

A small helicopter costs about $150,000 to $250,000, plus an average of $35,000-$40,000 a year in expenses like insurance, hangar fees, inspections, and continuing training. McCabe is one of about four people in the Cleveland area who use a helicopter for personal transportation, estimates Thom Bencin, co-owner of Precision Helicopter Services, a helicopter charter service and flight school based at Burke Lakefront Airport. He also knows a plastics company owner in Cuyahoga Falls who has a helicopter based at his business and a businessman who flies from Brook Park to the Lake Erie Islands by copter on Saturdays, when the walleye are biting.

Helicopter regulations vary from town to town. The Bencins live in Broadview Heights, just west of Brecksville, which has no helicopter ordinance. They have a heliport, which they use occasionally, in an industrial area there. Other towns, such as Highland Heights and Gates Mills, have ordinances prohibiting helicopter landings, though Gates Mills lets medical copters land, and Highland Heights makes exceptions for emergencies and some special events.

Since Brecksville passed its emergency ordinance, McCabe hasn't been landing at home nearly as often. "Just like if it's my car," he says. "If my car is not available when I walk out of my house, I can't use it." He stores his copter at Burke.

As for Brecksville's proposed ban, McCabe says he won't speak out against it if the measure makes it to the ballot. Nor will he discuss what he'll do if voters prohibit his helicopter from landing. "Everybody will find out soon enough," he says.

For now, he hopes the City will back down.

"I would think the political power structure in Brecksville is smart enough to realize the mistake it's made," he says, "because of a few whiny citizens."

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