EAST GULL LAKE -- The East Gull Lake helicopter saga continues, with no decision yet on whether private helipads will be allowed in the city.
A three hour planning commission meeting Tuesday, July 28, brought out viewpoints from those on both sides of the issue, with helicopter proponents arguing for the same rights as those with seaplanes and powered parachutes, and opponents voicing concerns about safety and noise pollution. The result was a tabled issue planning commission members agreed they needed more time to contemplate.
The contentious issue first popped up in September 2018, City Administrator Rob Mason told the somewhat socially distanced crowd of about 100 gathered at Cragun’s Legacy Clubhouse Tuesday, when a newcomer to East Gull Lake asked about being able to land a helicopter on his private property. After looking over city code, checking with Cass County and inquiring with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Mason learned what the resident wanted to do was legal but that there were no regulations for private helicopters and helipads in either city or county use ordinances.
A proposal to add such a use to city code is not flying with many East Gull Lake residents. But lake home owner Doug Schieffer maintains his desire to land a helipad on his property on Floan Point to travel back and forth from the Twin Cities.
Some neighbors are OK with it; some are not. Some worry about their children’s safety and their property’s value, while others have no issue with Schieffer’s chosen mode of transportation.
While audience members at Tuesday’s meeting were told the public hearing dealt with an ordinance change in general and not Schieffer’s request specifically, his name inevitably came up, and opponents couldn’t help feeling the change was for him, and him alone.
In the ordinance
If the proposed ordinance is passed, private heliports would be a regulated use in East Gull Lake. Those who wanted to build a helipad would have to apply for a conditional use permit and adhere to the following guidelines:
Property must contain a minimum of 5 acres on a lake.
Property owner must acquire a MnDOT aeronautics permit.
Property owner is limited to commuting and storage of the helicopter on site. Two take offs and landings per day maximum allowed. All recreational flights will be done from the East Gull Lake Airport.
Flight times will be limited to 7 a.m. to dusk.
Adequate proof of insurance must be filed with the city.
No take off in any instance in winds exceeding 20 knots. Visibility must be at least 3 miles. Cloud heights must be at least 1,000 feet above the ground. The weather as reported from the Brainerd Automatic Weather Observation Station will be used.
To go into effect, the ordinance must be passed by a majority of the planning commission and a four-fifths city council vote. Otherwise helipads will remain as an excluded use.
Planning Commission Chair Bruce Buxton gave attorneys and their teams on each side of the argument 45 minutes to state their case before hearing from the public.
First up was Rex Alexander, a former military helicopter pilot with 40 years of professional aviation experience. His resume includes involvement with the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, Helicopter Association International, Transportation Safety Institute and Five-Alpha, a consultancy providing specialized education, training, insight and services relating to helicopter and vertical lift infrastructure.
Alexander discussed safety, noise, property values and wildlife impacts — all points opponents of the helicopter ordinance have cited as concerns.
Safety: Alexander pointed to a 1992 study from the FAA that analyzed the risk of helicopter landing site accidents. The study found the risk of a helicopter accident near a heliport that has 400 annual flights is about one accident every 495 years.
“Is it possible?” Alexander said of helicopter accidents. “Anything’s possible, but what’s the probability, and how do we manage that probability?”
The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team did a follow up study in 2016, reviewing 185 helicopter accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board between 1965-2013. The study found more than 90% of accidents occurred at heliports that did not adhere to the FAA’s heliport design guidance. In most cases, the accident occurred because there was something — like a tree or a building — that should not have been as close to the heliport as it was. The study also found no bystanders or anyone from the general public had been injured or killed from a helicopter accident occurring at a private heliport.
“I'm not going to say there's never been an accident and heliport. That's one of the reasons I got into this business in the first place, to prevent those accidents from happening,” Alexander said. “But when we look at the general public — the impact — so far, since 1965, we've had a perfect safety record.”
Noise: Alexander then went into the noise pollution issue. According to state statute, during a one-hour period, daytime noise levels in a residential area cannot exceed 65 decibels for more than 10% — or 6 minutes — of that time. Noise levels also cannot exceed 60 decibels for more than 50% — or 30 minutes — of that time. Essentially, during a six minute period, a person can make as much noise as they want, Alexander said.
The Helicopter Association International puts the decibel level of a helicopter flying at 1,000 feet at 78 decibels, rising to 87 decibels at 500 feet. It does not specify the type of helicopter, though, or the noise levels during landing and takeoff. For comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts gas-powered lawn mowers around 80-85 decibels, and motorcycles at 95 decibels.
Environmental impacts: Another argument from opponents of the helicopter ordinance is the impact on the surrounding environment.
First of all, Alexander said helicopters do not discharge or leak oil or fuel in the normal course of operation. The majority of fuel discharges on record, he said, are associated with improper fueling practices or major maintenance operations.
Statistics from the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database show 22 bald eagles and one loon were reportedly struck by aircrafts between 1990-2019 in Minnesota. Of those, one bald eagle was hit by a helicopter but no loons.
Objective evidence: Kyle Hart, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thompson, summed up Alexander’s points, noting the overwhelming objective evidence shows helicopters do not affect safety, noise, wildlife or property values.
Alexander said there is no study on record analyzing the effect of private heliports on property values, thus no proof they decrease property values.
Hart pointed to Lee Anderson, a Nisswa property owner who has flown a helicopter in and out of his cabin on Nisswa Lake for years. Administrator Mason said the city of Nisswa has no reports of complaints about Anderon’s helicopter use.
In summary, Hart laid out the following points: The likelihood of an accident is astronomically low; East Gull Lake’s proposed ordinance requires more than adequate safety measures; helicopters do not pose a threat to bald eagles and loons; and there is no evidence of decreased property values near heliports.
“You’re supposed to look at the objective evidence when making your decision,” Hart told the planning commission. “Mob rule — particularly when based on speculation, inaccurate information and fear — should not sway your decision.
“... So what you need to do tonight is ask yourself, ‘Is there anywhere in East Gull Lake where a heliport might be appropriate.’ … Of course there is. That’s because helicopters are safe, can comply with applicable noise ordinances and are nowhere near as much of a threat to wildlife or peaceful enjoyment of property as a seaplane, powered parachute, powerboat or jetski.”
Hart said it is irrational and not equal justice to allow the aforementioned crafts but not helicopters. While East Gull Lake is undeniably a beautiful place, Hart said it is not a mythical utopian Shangri-La, nor is it the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but a heavily used recreational lake.
Matthew Loven, an attorney with Minneapolis firm Messerli Kramer, represented residents opposed to helicopter use in East Gull Lake.
Loven said he wasn’t going to talk about if the city’s use ordinance could be amended but rather if it should be. To argue his case, he turned to the city’s zoning code, which states the code’s purpose is to “protect public health, safety, comfort, convenience and general welfare.”
It goes on to state “amendments shall not be issued indiscriminately, but shall only be used as a means to reflect changes in the goals of the community or changes in the conditions of the city.”
If the ordinance were to pass, the city would have to issue conditional use permits for anyone wishing to build a helipad. But Loven pointed again to the city’s code, which lays out several requirements for conditional use permits to be issued. They include:
The use is compatible with the existing neighborhood.
The use would not be injurious to the public health, safety and welfare of the city.
The use should not be injurious to the enjoyment of other property in the immediate vicinity.
Adequate measures should be taken to prevent or control odor, fumes, dust, noise and vibration so as not to create a nuisance.
The use will not result in the destruction, loss or damage of a natural, scenic or historical feature.
The helipad ordinance, Loven said, would violate all of these requirements.
Next, Loven pointed to spot zoning, which refers to amendments which establish a use classification inconsistent with surrounded uses and is prohibited by the city’s zoning code. Loven argued the heliport ordinance would be a prime example of spot zoning, as it would only apply to 15 properties.
Loven then pointed to other landing options helicopter owners have nearby. The East Gull Lake Airport is about 3 miles away from Floan Point, while the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is 16 miles, and the Breezy Point Airport is 23 miles.
The East Gull Lake Airport, though, is likely not an option for a private helicopter pilot to land, as the original deed only allows hangars to be built if they are not visible from County Highway 77. That isn’t possible without disrupting the land’s natural flora, which the deed also prohibits.
Loven also questioned the proposed ordinance’s enforceability, noting someone would have to be on hand to police noise levels, take off times, etc., and the Cass County Sheriff’s Office has already said that is not its place.
“In my opinion, and based on your own zoning code and your criteria, your standards, your requirements, I think you need to leave helipads where they belong,” Loven said. “They belong at airports; they don't belong on residential lots.”
East Gull Lake resident and former military helicopter pilot Tom Ward followed Loven, maintaining there are safety risks involved in having a private helipad in a residential area.
“I’m looking at it from a common sense safety issue, and that’s the primary reason we oppose this,” Ward said, noting he is an experienced pilot with more than 3,000 flight hours logged.
“We do not want helicopters taking off, landing or flying over our house, our property, in East Gull Lake,” he concluded.
When given a few minutes to rebut the other side’s arguments, Hart compared his team’s objective facts to what he described as a lack of evidence and mere “feelings” on Loven’s part.
Loven, however, said it’s actually about the requirements in the city’s zoning code, not just subjective, “feel good” ideals.
In response to Ward’s desire not to have helicopters flying over his property, Hart said that is already allowed, as the airspace is managed by the FAA. The only thing that isn’t currently allowed is a helicopter pilot’s right to land on private property in East Gull Lake.
In terms of enforcement, Hart and Alexander said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would have authority to police noise levels. And depending on the city’s adopted fire and building codes, Alexander said the fire marshal may also have jurisdiction.
Loven said he checked with the MPCA and learned they do not enforce noise issues when it comes to private helipads. Perhaps there’s a fire marshal, he said, but there are several other conditions — like take-off and landing times and frequencies — that would be difficult to police.
Loven concluded by reminding the planning commission the reason for a zoning code is to serve the entire community and not just the interests of an individual or small group of residents.
After a five minute recess, residents were allowed to address the board. Before the meeting, hundreds of letters were sent to the city regarding the proposed ordinance, with a vast majority in opposition. The letters are available on the city’s website.
The following are some thoughts from the hearing:
Geoff Barnes, opposed: “The public welfare and beauty are not just touchy-feely issues, they’re things that we live and breathe and we come here to experience. And we are going to ruin that for future generations for the benefit of very few people, and I for one am very upset about that. I would love my children to come and see the beauties of nature and not see choppers riding and landing directly across from where we live.”
Emily Bauernfeind, opposed: “I can appreciate professionals speaking to the statistics of safety. It is without a doubt that placing a private helipad in a neighborhood is increasing the risk of catastrophic danger to neighbors within a very large radius. It takes one time to make a mistake. And they do happen.”
David Schultz, in support: “I think your ordinance is reasonable, well-thought out, well engineered, and I’m in favor of it.”
Janelle Riley, opposed: “If we’re benefiting just a handful — potentially — of people through this, there should be a 0% risk … because this is really an unnecessary luxury that just a handful of people are going to be able to avail themselves of, and anything more than a 0% risk makes no sense for the community as a whole.”
Christina Hart, opposed: The job of the planning and zoning commission is to serve the community, and a majority of voices are opposed.
Uldis Birznieks, on behalf of the Gull Chain of Lakes Association, opposed: The GCOLA board of directors unanimously signed a letter of opposition.
Jennie Ward, opposed: “This amendment will provide no benefit to the city. The city won't be safer, amenities will not improve, the quality of life won't improve, natural resources and wildlife will not be protected. It will provide no benefits. Airports are located away from residential areas for good reasons.”
Doug Schieffer, in support: “Seaplanes are permitted to land and take off directly in front of my property, where a seaplane base is located, while I and other helicopter pilots are not afforded the same right.” Schieffer said he believes flying a helicopter on a good weather day is much safer than driving a car.
Jay Gudajtes, opposed: Gudajtes is Schieffer’s next door neighbor and broke down in tears while expressing fears for his family’s safety. “I take the safety of my family very seriously. I can't see how it’s safer for my family, or even your family, to have a helicopter that could crash next to your house.”
Nealna Gylling, in support: Gylling lives across the road from Schieffer and is a member of GCOLA who supports the ordinance. She said the noise levels were hardly noticeable from inside the house when Schieffer did a test flight out to his property.
Noelle Wallace: Wallace said she has been wanting a chicken coop and goats for a long time but can’t have them in the city, so if helicopters are allowed, she said she’d be back to ask for her animals again.
Planning commission decision
When it came time for the planning commission to weigh in, Chair Buxton said there were three options they could consider:
Reject the proposed ordinance.
Recommend council approval of the proposed ordinance with or without any revisions.
Table any action until a future meeting to have time to digest all the information given.
Buxton asked the commission if there was any way to amend the proposed ordinance that might make it appeal to both sides. Commission member Rocky Waldin threw out the idea of allowing helicopters only in R-1 residential areas on larger parcels that are off the lake and not close to other houses.
With no more discussion, Eunice Wiebolt made the motion to table the decision for now, which the rest of the commission agreed with.
Commission members will have a workshop set for 6 p.m. Aug. 24, at East Gull Lake City Hall, and they directed City Attorney Tom Pearson to prepare findings of fact to support recommendations for or against the ordinance. Commissioners hope the extra time and the workshop will help them better digest everything they heard during the hearing and make a final decision during their regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25.