Private helicopter usage took center stage in the small community of East Gull Lake in 2020, evoking strong emotions and dividing neighbors.
A months-long process with multiple public hearings and meetings resulted in the city council striking down a proposal to allow private helipads within the city.
Resident Doug Schieffer brought the issue forward, wanting to commute from his new seasonal home on East Gull Lake’s Floan Point to his office and home in the Twin Cities. But because the city did not have any regulations pertaining to helipads, city staff drew up an ordinance for the planning commission and city council to consider.
The document would have allowed for residents with lakeside lots of 5 acres or more to apply for a conditional use permit to build a helipad on their property. Fifteen properties would have been eligible. The permit would have come with several stipulations, including a limited number of takeoffs and landings at specific times, required aeronautics permit from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, adequate proof of insurance and clear weather conditions.
Hundreds of East Gull Lake residents expressed their opposition to the measure through phone calls, letters or public hearing comments. They didn’t want the risk of a helicopter crash in their backyard. They didn’t want noisy helicopters to disturb their peace and quiet. They didn’t want to disturb the natural environment. They wanted to keep the woodsy “up north” feel of their small community.
Schieffer argued against those points, providing experts who vouched for the safety of helicopters as a mode of transportation and the infinitesimal probability of crashes, along with noise levels not unlike seaplanes or motorboats, which are already widely used in the city. Proponents use the city’s comprehensive plan in their argument as well, noting the plan mentions attention to monumental changes in transportation, communication and technology to help businesses progress and stay in the area with the availability of high-speed internet.
Opponents of the measure, however, also cited the comp plan and the portion that calls for preserving the natural environment and the community’s character when considering further development.
Planning commission members saw both sides of the issue, splitting their vote 3-2 in August to deny the ordinance, sending that recommendation to the city council for a final decision. Commission members Eunice Wiebolt and Marty Halvorson voted for the amendment, while Bruce Buxton, Nathan Tuomi and Rocky Waldin were opposed.
Halvorson said the conditional use permit would mean the city could heavily regulate helipad use, and Wiebolt said property owners should be able to use their land as they see fit.
Buxton, Tuomi and Waldin maintained private helicopter use would disturb the character of the city and pose a safety threat — albeit a small one — to residents.
The city council later approved the denial unanimously with little discussion, though Mayor Dave Kavanaugh and council member Scott Hoffman said the large amount of public opposition significantly impacted their decision.
When considering whether to specifically add helipads as an excluded use in the city’s zoning code — an unnecessary step, the city attorney said — council member Carol Demgen harkened back to the comprehensive plan’s mention of technological advancement and said there may be some more rural areas in the city where landing a helicopter could be allowable.
The four-fifths supermajority needed to amend the city code and add the exclusion clause did not happen — with a 3-2 vote — and it didn’t change the main decision. No private helipads are allowed in East Gull Lake.
Much of the audience cheered at the decision, while Schieffer said he was disgusted with the lies spread by his neighbors.