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East Gull council strikes down helicopter proposal

City council members unanimously decided against an ordinance amendment that would have allowed private helipads in the city.

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East Gull Lake residents, including helicopter pilot Doug Schieffer seated in the back row, listen in on an East Gulll Lake city council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, at Cragun's Legacy Clubhouse, where council members discussed a proposed helipad ordinance. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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EAST GULL LAKE — A largely happy group left Cragun’s Legacy Clubhouse Tuesday evening, Sept. 1, celebrating a decision in their favor.

The ruling? No private helipads allowed in East Gull Lake.

The city council unanimously struck down a proposed ordinance amendment that would have allowed the construction and use of private helipads in the city.

“(The council) reached, what I consider, the only logical conclusion,” Attorney Matthew Loven said after the meeting Tuesday.

Loven represented the East Gull Lake residents who opposed the helipad measure. About 200 of them publicly voiced their opposition via letters, phone calls or public forum comments.

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Helicopter pilot Doug Schieffer was on the other side — leaving the council meeting with feelings of disgust over what he said was a disregard for facts.

“Lies and deceit won,” he said the next day. “That’s disgusting.”

Coming to a decision

Mayor Dave Kavanaugh opened Tuesday’s much-anticipated council meeting after promising not to end up handcuffed on the hood of the car like a certain nearby mayor in recent days.

Very little discussion preceded the vote, which aligned with the planning and zoning commission’s recommendation to deny the ordinance change.

“The comprehensive plan notes that a significant confluence of the city is made up of high-density seasonal cabins and year-round homes around Gull Lake, and at the same time is focused on ensuring that the city naturally perpetuate the character that makes our community a special place to live, work and recreate,” Planning Commission Chair Bruce Buxton told the council. “... For this reason, the plan emphasizes the need to protect its unique environment and maintain the solitude of a peaceful life. … Helipad usage is not consistent with these community goals and should not be allowed.”

Before the council voted, Buxton cited several concerns from those who opposed the helipad, concerns that led to a 3-2 planning commission vote the prior week to deny the amendment.

Though small, he mentioned the potential for accidents.

“There are still risks associated with helicopters landing and taking off in residential areas,” Buxton said. “... No licensing or compliance with regulations can guarantee the safe operation of the helicopter. There is always the risk of human error or mechanical malfunction.”

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He mentioned noise levels.

“Each landing and takeoff — despite lasting less than 90 seconds to up to two minutes — significantly intrudes upon a neighbor’s use of their property,” Buxton said. “Despite its decibel levels being comparable to other uses such as seaplanes, motorboats, etc., it is still a reminder that the helicopter is landing or taking off and has a distinct sound.”

He mentioned the slight but possible risk of a fuel leak, lack of enforceability, existence of nearby airports, inconsistencies with the city’s comprehensive plan and overwhelming opposition from residents, which he said is representative of the vision and goals of the community as a whole.

Schieffer, however, had a different take. His desire to commute from his home and job in the Twin Cities area to his new seasonal residence in East Gull Lake propelled the helipad issue further when it was discovered East Gull Lake did not have any such regulations. The ordinance amendment would have allowed him to apply for a conditional use permit to build a helipad. Just as the name implies, the permit would have been subject to several conditions, including set flight hours, a limited number of landings and takeoffs, comprehensive insurance, proper licensing and approval from the Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics office.

Schieffer said some neighbors who spoke against the helipad at the public hearing in July told him prior that they were OK with his plans, as long as the helicopter landed on the side of his property farthest away from their house.

He also believes some of those who opposed the measure were spreading lies — such as how close his helicopter would land to the house next door — to get other community members on their side, creating an unfair fight for him.

“These are not good people,” he said by phone Wednesday, Sept. 2. “These are not good, honest people, and the whole situation is disgusting to me.”

Schieffer said he would never land his helicopter too close to a neighbor’s house or a child’s bedroom window. And MnDOT would never have allowed that either, he said, noting the ordinance amendment would not have meant he automatically got to build his helipad. It simply would have given him the opportunity to apply for a conditional use permit and require him to meet all the requirements.

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When he started construction of his house last fall, Schieffer said he was under the impression the city would issue him a permit for the helipad and designed his property accordingly.

“There’s just a lot more to the story,” he said. “My side has not gotten out. We’ve tried to be politically correct and stay out of the defaming and the lies and deceit and just go in and state facts.”

Schieffer maintains public officials ignored the facts provided to them.

“For someone to say that it’s noisy and unsafe when we gave you facts about noise, we gave you facts about whether a heliport is safe,” he said. “They just still make it an opinion. That’s not a fact.”

Loven thinks otherwise, previously saying the planning commission’s original decision was absolutely based on facts, like that the ordinance amendment would create spot zoning because so few properties would meet the requirements. He was also adamant helipads are not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, which emphasizes maintaining a rural, “northwoods” character.

Loven said his clients also thought the community opposition should weigh on the decision, even if it couldn't be the sole basis for denial.

Ultimately, Loven and his crew were happy the council’s decision was unanimous.

The vote

While council members didn’t have much to say before unanimously denying the measure Tuesday, they gave a better glimpse of their thought process while considering a motion — whether to add helipads as a specifically excluded use in the land use ordinance.

While the planning commission recommended the move, City Attorney Tom Pearson said it was unnecessary, as the ordinance already states anything not mentioned in there is an excluded use.

Kavanaugh said he didn’t like the exclusion clause and questioned whether they would have to double down on every excluded use like that.

The proposed change was to exclude helipads from R-1, R-2 and R-3 districts. Kavanaugh said he took issue with R-1 zones, which are rural residential districts of 2.5 acres or more.

“I think there are areas in this city with sizable acreage that could handle a landing pad,” he said.

When the helipad issue arose initially, Kavanaugh said he was against it. But after letters of support came in from adjacent neighbors, he said he changed his mind, questioning why he would stand in the way of something that was OK with those directly impacted.

But as the process dragged on, he said the public’s opposition was clear, and he only had one person who called him to state their support.

Council member Scott Hoffman said he was in the same boat as Kavanaugh.

“For me, it’s down to two things,” Hoffman said. “No. 1, probably just the overwhelming support for denying this ordinance, and No. 2, I don’t think it belongs in East Gull Lake.”

Council member Tim Bergin said he thought R-1 should still be excluded, as there are other options for landing helicopters.

Council member Carol Demgen noted the portion of the comprehensive plan that calls for support of technological advancements and deters the city from creating technology barriers.

“I look at this helicopter, and I think, maybe that will be the mode of transportation in five, 10 years,” she said.

Buxton said the planning commission recognized the technology piece, but he thinks it’s a little far-fetched to believe helicopters will be a widely used mode of transportation in East Gull Lake in the near future.

A lot of things from “The Jetsons” have come true, council member Jim Ruttger said in a tongue-in-cheek manner, so there’s no telling what’s next.

A four-fifths supermajority was needed to amend the land use code and add the exclusion clause, but Kavanaugh and Demgen voted against it, making the vote 3-2.

But even though the exclusion will not be added, Kavanaugh reminded the public helipads are still not allowed in the city, even if the code doesn’t explicitly state that.

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

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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