William Lyon is not your typical commuter. For months, the eminent developer has ferried himself and passengers in and out of his sprawling Coto de Caza estate by helicopter, departing from what is Orange County's only residential helipad.
This week, about a year after Lyon began the flights, the Orange County Board of Supervisors is expected to give him permission to land.
It seems that Lyon, former chairman of Air Cal, built the heliport on his sprawling 130-plus acre homestead without getting the required local and state permits, authorities say.
"I hate to say it's illegal, but it was done without the benefit of the proper permits," said Dan Fricke, a county planner.
When the supervisors take up the matter on Tuesday, they will consider granting after-the-fact permission for the helipad. County officials expect the matter, listed as a routine consent calendar item, to sail through without a hitch, setting the stage for Lyon to get final approval from the state, probably this fall.
Retired Air Force General
An active pilot, retired Air Force Reserve brigadier general, big-game hunter, collector of classic autos, Republican Party contributor and noted philanthropist, Lyon declined through his secretary to talk about the heliport.
A background report prepared by the county, however, shed some light on the heliport. It consists of a grass surface supported by subterranean concrete blocks. The report says that "flush mounted (upward directed) perimeter lighting is proposed to facilitate night operations."
The report, prepared by the planning division, says Lyon's Bell Long Ranger helicopter will be based at John Wayne Airport and "will operate on a flight path remaining south of the San Diego Freeway to El Toro Road and then to Coto de Caza," flying at about 1,500 feet. It says Lyon would probably use the helicopter an average of three to a maximum of five round trips per week.
Moreover, Lyon agreed to open the facility to Coto de Caza residents in the event of earthquake, fire or "other similar acts of nature," the report says.
The Laguna Beach consultant hired by Lyon to get the permits said the former Air Cal chief simply was unaware that the permits were needed when he built the landing pad at his Coto de Caza home.
"I don't think he was initially aware there were requirements for it," said Jeff Wright, owner of Heliplanners, a one-man outfit which shepherds helipad proposals through the permit process. "When he learned that there were, he had his firm contact us to go ahead and get permits and make it nice and legal."
Bill Riesen, airports chief with the state division of aeronautics, said such scenarios are not unusual.
"One of the major problems is most people don't realize there's a state law for private heliports," Riesen said. "It's ignorance on their part. Once we notify them and explain the law, we work with them to get these things legalized."
Though the state has the final say in permitting heliports, he said, few safeguards exist to prevent someone from plunking down a back-yard landing pad--as long as neighbors don't complain.
"We don't have enough people to police it," Riesen said. "When we find one, we notify local government officials and they have the responsibility for enforcing the law. As a last resort, we can go to court and get a restraining order to shut a heliport down, but that doesn't happen very often."
Lyon's neighbors hardly seem to mind the flights into his helipad.
"Anyone who would complain about it would complain about a car going down the street backfiring," said Dave Chase, who lives a half mile up the road.
Bill Todd, a neighbor just across the street from Lyon's property, said the developer has made a concerted effort to avoid flying over neighbors' homes.
"This is America; the guy's succeeded in life and he should have a chance to enjoy it," Todd said. "My concern is with these other helicopter pilots who bring people up to look at real estate and end up hovering right over the fairway."
Wright said Lyon's six-passenger helicopter usually is parked at a corporate heliport at John Wayne Airport, then flown to the Coto de Caza estate to pick him up.
"Given the choice of sitting on the freeway for two hours, or getting to work in a few minutes by helicopter, if I had the money, I'd go by helicopter," Wright said.