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.

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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.

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A crowd of about 100 gathered in and outside Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse Tuesday, July 28, for an East Gull Lake Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to discuss the allowance of private helipads in the city. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
A crowd of about 100 gathered in and outside Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse Tuesday, July 28, for an East Gull Lake Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to discuss the allowance of private helipads in the city. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

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.

East Gull Lake residents, including helicopter pilot Doug Schieffer seated in the back row, listen in on a city council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse, where council members discussed a proposed helipad ordinance. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
East Gull Lake residents, including helicopter pilot Doug Schieffer seated in the back row, listen in on a city council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse, where council members discussed a proposed helipad ordinance. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

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.

RELATED: East Gull Lake: Planning commission shoots down helicopter proposal; council to make final decision

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.

East Gull Lake Mayor Dave Kavanaugh (left) states his position on a proposed helipad ordinance in the city during a council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
East Gull Lake Mayor Dave Kavanaugh (left) states his position on a proposed helipad ordinance in the city during a council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

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.

Residents of East Gull Lake listen to planning commission members discuss a proposed helipad ordinance amendment during a work session Monday, Aug. 24, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Disaptch
Residents of East Gull Lake listen to planning commission members discuss a proposed helipad ordinance amendment during a work session Monday, Aug. 24, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Disaptch

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.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.