Seaplane Adventures is tourist sightseeing plane ride service located on Richardson Bay, along Highway 101. It operates out of a makeshift, bayfront, landing pier, and boat ramp near the Manzanita Park & Ride. Over the years, as the surrounding residential area has built out, the noise, air and water pollution, and related environmental impacts have become a major concern for local residents, who've become increasingly vocal about it. The company has been operated by a succession of owners and operated under a variety of names, but the relationship between residents and its current owner/operator has, according to reports, been problematic.
Starting in the 1980s, the Strawberry Point Homeowners Association became concerned about the increasing number of flights over the Strawberry Point community (during taking offs and landings on the water). At that time the seaplane sightseeing service was known as Commodore Seaplanes. The Homeowners Association contacted Marin County Planning and requested a review of the company’s original 1953 operating permit because environmental regulations and the surrounding residential area had changed so dramatically since that time.
As a result, in 1981, the Marin County Planning Commission’s review found that
“…circumstances have changed since the grant of the use permit in 1953…” and that “…the public necessity, convenience and general welfare do require modification of the use permit.” [Emphasis added]
To correct the situation, 6 conditions were added to the Use Permit. They were as follows:
- No approaches over Strawberry Point except in the judgment of the pilot when necessary for safe operation. This condition is not intended to allow repeated approaches over Strawberry Point under unsafe conditions. Strawberry Point shall be defined as the area south of the Seminary.
- Richardson Bay to be used for arrivals and departures only, i.e., no touch-and-go operations. A school; shall be allowed to operate from the base, but training maneuvers, with the exception of sailing or idling type and initial takeoff and final landing must take place in other areas.
- No-power approaches to be used except when necessary for safe operations.
- Transient airplanes will not be allowed the use of base facilities by the operator.
- Maximum of four commercial aircraft at the base, but only two may be simultaneously used for revenue-producing purposes, and
- At no time should any aircraft operated by the commercial operator exceed 86 decibels. [Emphasis added]
Since 2012, under the company’s current ownership, residents have reported to the County that many of these conditions have been violated and enforcement by the County has been virtually nonexistent.
WW II pilot Robert Law started the seaplane business in 1945. It was called Commodore Air Service. The first airport permit was issued in 1945 and a Use Permit was obtained from Marin County in 1953. From 1953 to 1966, 10-12 commercial seaplanes were operating there as well as an additional 3-6 privately-owned seaplanes.
By 1980, the seaplane business had changed hands multiple times and seaplane activity on Richardson Bay was greatly reduced. In a November 29, 1980 letter from Chris Hansen (the then operator of the seaplane base) to the Marin County Planning Commission, Hansen stated that only 2 commercial aircraft, a 4-place Stinson and a 2-place Taylorcraft were operating and that “There has been a tremendous decrease in flight operations over the years.”
In 1992, the seaplane base property and its operations (Commodore) was acquired by Steve Price. Shortly after, Price introduced an 8-place deHaviland DHC-2 Beaver aircraft as the company’s primary sightseeing plane. However, at that time, the company operated most of its sightseeing flights from Pier 39 in San Francisco, under the name of San Francisco Seaplane Tours so the number of takeoffs and landings over Richardson Bay was limited.
According to residents, Mr. Price was also generally responsive to homeowners’ complaints about noise and occasional flights over Strawberry Point. And for the most part, he adhered to the 6 conditions of the 1981 Use Permit.
In 2012, Price sold the seaplane operation to Aaron Singer but retained ownership of the Commodore Base property. Subsequently, Mr. Singer changed the name from” San Francisco Seaplane Tours” to “Seaplane Adventures.”
New ownership and increased operations
With the change in ownership, homeowners in Strawberry allege that the frequency of sightseeing flights from the Commodore Base increased. Mr. Singer, the new owner, added a second DHC-2 Beaver, and a Cessna 182 was also used for both flight training and to add sightseeing capacity.
It should be noted that the DHC-2 Beaver is essentially a “bush pilot” airplane, originally designed to operate in places like the Alaskan outback, 60 years ago, at a time when its loud and polluting engines were not a concern. And although the DHC-2 planes used by Seaplane Adventures are newer models that have some operating improvements, they are still quite loud on take-off. A study done by residents indicated that of the 17 locations in the US where these planes are used for sightseeing, the Commodore Base is the only one located in a residential area. Newer, safer, and quieter aircraft might now be more appropriate to use in this situation.
Use Permit Violations
Beginning in 2012, Strawberry Point homeowners claim that Seaplane Adventures began to regularly violate the 1981 Marin County Planning Commission conditions, noted above, including running overflights of homes on Strawberry Point, power-on landings, and noise levels frequently above the 86 decibel limit.
Seaplane coming in for a landing over a Strawberry Point homeowner's backyard
Residents report that phone calls and emails from Strawberry Point homeowners to Mr. Singer of Seaplane Adventures, over the following three years, requesting that he adhere to the Use Permit conditions, were summarily ignored. Personal visits to the Commodore base, to make similar requests, were met with what residents described to me as “open hostility.”
Finally, after repeated, unsuccessful attempts to convince Mr. Singer to adhere to the Use Permit conditions, a group of 22 Strawberry Point neighbors emailed Cristy Stanley in County Code Enforcement, in May of 2015. Their detailed complaint asked for the County’s help in enforcing the permit conditions. Their complaints included that Seaplane Adventures was flying over their homes, operating at above allowable decibel levels, and regularly landings on more than “no power,” as specified in the 1981 conditions.
In response, Ms. Stanley emailed Mr. Singer and outlined the 1981 permit conditions, again. His response to Ms. Stanley was to essentially deny that Use Permit violations had occurred and present his own version of the story, which apparently went unchallenged by the County. Strawberry Point homeowners characterize Mr. Singer’s version of the situation as a work of “fiction.”
In a July 9, 2015 email from Mr. Singer to Ms. Stanley, he stated,
“We make every effort possible on a daily basis to reduce our impact on the local community, while maintaining the highest standard of aviation safety for our customers and our employees.” “…we have strict noise-abatement procedures utilized on take-off and on landing and our pilots employ specialized techniques to avoid over-flight of homes while maintaining utmost safe flight operations during all phases of our flights.
"All take-offs are conducted from South of the overpass at 101 or the cove to the East of that bridge and are flown out of the inlet opening toward Sausalito. As soon as flights are at an altitude upon rotation from take-oft power is reduced to 70 % of take-off power to reduce noise impacts on climb-out.
"At no time did we over-fly homes on Strawberry into the inlet unless there were an emergency or serious safety issue requiring us to do so.”
Seaplane coming in for a landing over Strawberry Point homes
In July of 2015, some months after the complaint was filed, Seaplane Adventures contacted the Sheriff, the FAA, and the County and alleged that someone in a house on Strawberry Point had pointed a laser at the pilots in one of their planes during its landing approach. Doing this is a federal crime punishable by a $250,000 fine and 5 years in prison.
Soon after, the accused and bewildered homeowner received a visit from Sheriff’s Deputy Trevor Strong and explained that the only thing that anyone has ever pointed at a Seaplane Adventures’ aircraft was a camera taking photographs of their planes flying right over his house. No action was taken against the homeowner by the Sheriff, the FAA or the County, as the allegations were unfounded.
Was this false accusation retaliation or an attempt to intimidate the Strawberry Point community group for filing their complaint against Seaplane Adventures, as residents allege? No one knows, but the timing was certainly curious.
Photo taken from the deck of a Strawberry Point resident with a telephoto lens
What I can say, based on my personal experience, having taken a flight on Seaplane Adventures around this time, is that the plane we were in did, in fact, fly over and land near the Strawberry Point area and the DeSilva Island inlet. Our flight also included an attempted landing, abort, and retry, all with full power. We were so rattled by the experience that we demanded a refund for the flight.
Enter Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears
In September 2015 emails from Singer to Ms. Stanley and County Supervisor Kate Sears, Singer argued that the County’s condition that his pilots conduct “no power” landings was unreasonable and putting lives in danger. (Condition #3: “No-power approaches to be used except when necessary for safe operations.”)
“It is simply unsafe to attempt engine-off approaches to land at any airport and would be considered a potential breach of Federal Aviation Administration laws and regulations, except in the case of an emergency where the engine has failed to continue operating. It is not reasonable to expect Seaplane Adventures to operate outside legal requirements specified by Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) or the operating procedures proscribed by the manufacturer for our type of aircraft.”
“It is also utterly unsafe and dangerous. Aircraft require propulsion to fly and control the aircraft during flight. Once the engine is shut down, it is no longer possible to completely control the airplane's descent rate and airspeed. This is not a request I can entertain.”
This sounds reasonable, however, there is a flaw in this response. The County’s Use Permit condition did not require “engine-off” landings. It clearly required “no power” landings.
A “no power” landing is a well-known term for aviators. It simply means that the pilot throttles the engine back to idle for landing. Anyone who’s ever flown on a commercial airline knows something similar to this happens before a pilot touches down on the runway. (Note that power-off landings are described in the de Havilland Beaver DH-2 Operating Manual landing procedures section, and there is no mention of the procedure being unsafe)
Perhaps, Mr. Singer honestly did not know the difference between these two terms or was confused about how to interpret FAA regulations. Or, perhaps, as the Strawberry homeowners allege, he was attempting to confuse Stanley and Sears about the issue, both of whom were, obviously, unknowledgeable about the subject? That, we’ll never know. But that's not what's most important here.
What's most important for all of us is how the County has behaved during this controversy. None of the claims made on either side absolve the County of its responsibility to get its facts straight and deal with controversies in a fair and impartial manner.
In October of 2015, the Strawberry Point community group reached out to Supervisor Sears, to bring her up to speed. Subsequently, Sears contacted County staff, who had been in regular communication with Mr. Singer to discuss the permit conditions as they related to the community’s complaints. According to Sears, staff had concluded that, among other things, the community’s concerns did not reflect a typical code enforcement case and that
“The Seaplane Adventures case involves interpretation of terminology from an antiquated use permit, pilot judgment regarding flight safety conditions, complexity regarding the interface between local use permit authority and FAA rules, and monitoring of noise levels.”
In other words, she said, this was above her pay grade. Her response also showed the County’s lack of understanding of the law by adding,
“The condition prohibiting power landings has the been the subject of very careful scrutiny by our legal counsel in the context of possible conflicts with FAA safety guidelines and potential County liability should an accident occur as a result of requiring pilots to turn off the plane’s engine while landing on the bay.”
Again, the 1981 conditions did not require “engine-off” landings, so her response made no sense. Sears went on to say that she supported the County staff’s efforts to
“…find the best path forward within the limits of the County’s enforcement authority to ensure that Seaplane Adventures complies with the terms of their use permit and remains a good neighbor to Strawberry Point.”
And she assured the community that
“County staff keeps me apprised of their ongoing efforts to address your concerns. County staff has informed me that they have been in regular communication with Aaron Singer (owner and operator) to discuss the use permit conditions as they relate to your complaint.”
By the fall of 2015, the Strawberry Point community had spent years complaining to Mr. Singer and the County about the intense noise they had to endure from takeoffs and landings from the Seaplane Adventures base.
In response to this and subsequent inquiries by the County, Singer argued that
“Seaplane Adventures practices strict noise-abatement procedures as described above at all times unless safety of operations requires a departure from those procedures. Seaplane Adventures aircraft are also equipped with specialized propellers that allow for quieter operations. Through the utilization of this equipment and these procedures and techniques, we are able to keep our noise production below 86 decibels.”
Singer also provided test results to back up his claims. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Singer’s test results showed his operations rarely, if ever, exceeded the 86 dB limit. He stated that his readings were taken at the dock where the planes took off (which is not the point at which a plane engine is operating at full throttle).
Supervisor Sears accepted the data provided to the County by Seaplane Adventures and informed the community that,
“Seaplane Adventures recently submitted noise measurements to staff that appear to be the work of an acoustical consulting firm.”
However, it turned out that the “data” Mr. Singer provided was from a free download, Android cellphone app called Decibel Meter. The app has no official certifications or guarantees of accuracy that we know of.
The Strawberry Point community group contested this by testing the decibel levels, themselves. The instrument they used was the GM1351 decibel meter, which is certified to CE / ROHS / FCC standards. The dB readings they recorded from on the ground as seaplanes flew toward their homes on takeoff (shown in the images below), consistently ranged from 92.2 to 96.7 dB, far above the 86 dB allowable limit.
The group submitted those results to the County, stating,
“Mr. Singer's assertion that ''we are able to keep our noise production below 86 decibels" is false. We recently measured both N5520G and N203KL at takeoff power in the cove opposite DeSilva Island condominiums. The sound level exceeded the 86 decibel limit by 10 decibels in each case.”
The County responded that the community’s tests could not be confirmed as legitimate or unbiased. They said an independent noise survey would be required to establish actual readings.
At this point, one has to ask, why would the County trust the test results from the owner of Seaplane Adventures (who has a clear conflict of interest) but deny the validity of the tests done by the community? And, as noted above, testing at the launch site is not the same as testing as a plane is taking off, from on the ground, below it.
It’s also very important to note that a difference of 10 decibels may sound like a small difference, but it’s not at all once one understands how decibel measurements work. According to the Hearing Health Foundation,
“Like the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes, the decibel scale is logarithmic. Each 10 point increase in dB equals a tenfold increase in sound intensity (energy), and this is perceived as twice as loud by humans.” Sounds at 80 or 85 dB will damage hearing [and cause hearing loss] over time.” [Emphasis added]
In December 2015, The Strawberry homeowners finally met with Cristy Stanley and Jeremy Tejirian, the Planning Manager of the Marin County Community Development Agency, at the Civic Center to discuss their investigation of the issues surrounding Seaplane Adventures operations. According to the homeowners’ accounts of the meeting, Tejirian’s basic argument against strictly enforcing the 1981 Use Permit conditions was,
“How would it look if we were to go after a Mom and Pop [business]?”
Community members argued that the County was involved in code enforcement every day, regarding building code and other such violations, so why was this any different? They received no response to that.It seems the term “at no time” (as noted in the 1981 Use Permit conditions, regarding decibel limits) only applies to the rest of us when we’re trying to get a permit to remodel a bathroom or we get a ticket for running a stop sign.
The County’s noise level investigation
Undeterred, the Strawberry community group continued to report Seaplane Adventures’ ongoing violations of the Use Permit conditions regarding noise levels. Several months after the December 2015 meeting, the County decided to hire a consultant to conduct its own noise level study.
One would assume that if a government agency was going to conduct an investigative noise monitoring study, it would be done confidentially to ensure that the results were not tainted in any way. If the owner of Seaplane Adventures knew when the testing was being done, it is only logical to assume that the operations would be on their best behavior during that time.
On April 5, 2016, County Development Agency Director Brian Crawford emailed Mr. Tejirian and instructed him as follows,
“I suggest that we let them know that we intend to conduct independent noise measurements, including locations from the Strawberry Point peninsula. We want to conduct measurements when the operation is most active during the spring/summer period. We will not announce the timing and locations of the measurements to ensure they're reflective of actual operational conditions.”
On April 7, 2016, the Strawberry homeowners received an email from Mr. Tejirian stated that,
“We do intend to conduct independent noise measurements, including locations from the Strawberry Point peninsula. We will not announce the timing and locations of the measurements to ensure they’re reflective of actual operational conditions.”
Moreover, the Scope of Work appended to the consultant’s contract states,
"The scope of work is to conduct unannounced monitoring of Seaplane Adventures’ operations”.
Then, in September 2016, the community group received an email from Mr. Tejirian stating that the noise consultants the County had hired to conduct a $10,000 study of Seaplane Adventures concluded,
“…that the planes exceeded 86 decibels twice, but the exceedance was so minor that it was imperceptible to the human ear.”
“Based on the report, we’ve determined that Seaplane Adventures substantially conforms to the conditions of approval for their Use Permit.”
The consultant did not specify why their opinion about what was or was not permissible or perceptible “to the human ear” should be accepted as fact, in light of all published scientific data to the contrary. In any case, the County decided the matter settled and that was that.
However, the Strawberry homeowners subsequently learned, through a public records request, that Mr. Singer was aware that his operations were going to be monitored as much as two days before the first monitoring occurred on July 10th of 2016. This was despite Mr. Tejirian’s assurances to the community that this was not the case. And since Seaplane Adventures knew about this monitoring, isn’t it reasonable to assume that Mr. Singer’s pilots would have tried to stay within the required limits during the times they were being tested?
Worse still, Mr. Tejirian was actually made aware of the confidentiality breach in a July 8th email from Cristy Stanley, but he still allowed the monitoring to be conducted on July 10th and 23rd as planned. This meant that Mr. Singer would have had ample time to ensure that his plane’s flight paths were not in violation and his plane’s operations were kept below the required decibel level limits. Yet, despite knowing that the study’s confidentiality had been breached and that Seaplane Adventures knew about the monitoring, County staff allowed the study to proceed and accepted its results without question.
As a footnote to all this, Mr. Tejirian commented that Mr. Singer,
“said that he’s looking into a way of modifying his plane’s mufflers to further attenuate noise.”[Emphasis added]
The only problem is deHaviland DHC-2 Beaver airplanes don't have mufflers.
In subsequent correspondence from Strawberry homeowners group with the Operations Manager at Covington, a Pratt & Whitney certified distributor and designated overhaul facility for the R-985 engine used in the deHaviland DHC-2 Beaver, the Manager told the homeowner group that the R-985 does not have mufflers and that he had never heard of a muffler being put on an R-985. This was confirmed by Covington’s chief mechanic who added that the documentation for the R-985 shows no muffler. And any modification to the planes’ exhaust system would require costly and lengthy recertification of the aircraft by the FAA.
To the best of my knowledge, no mufflers were ever added to the Seaplane Adventures’ aircraft. And there is no record of Seaplane Adventures ever applying for recertification.
The community was back to square one.
Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.