Helicopters in East Gull Lake? Residents, pilot clash over helipad proposal
The idea of a helipad on private property has become a big issue for the little community of East Gull Lake.
Several opponents worry about the impact a project like this could have on safety and noise levels in their neighborhood, while the helicopter owner feels there is nothing wrong with his idea.
Doug Schieffer bought 9 acres of land on Sunsetview Road on Floan Point in East Gull Lake in January 2019 with the hope he would be able to build a helipad on the property to land his helicopter. Schieffer lives and works near the Twin Cities but plans to build a seasonal home in East Gull Lake. He would travel between the two locations with his helicopter when possible.
Many residents in the neighborhood, though, said they do not want to deal with the noise levels a helicopter would bring in that area. And recent helicopter crashes — like the one that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant on Jan. 26, and the fatal incident at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport in 2019 — have many fearing for their safety.
An East Gull Lake Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Tuesday, Feb. 25, will shed more light on the controversy, giving more information and offering residents a platform to air any concerns.
Schieffer approached Rob Mason, East Gull Lake city administrator/planning and zoning administrator, with the idea in the fall of 2018. Mason said he never had a request like that in his 25 years working for the city, so he began to research the legality and feasibility of a helipad by talking with the aeronautics department at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Cass and Crow Wing county sheriff’s offices.
Mason discovered there are no city or county ordinances regarding helipads and helicopters on private property in East Gull Lake or Cass County. He said he knows of residents in both Nisswa and on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes who fly helicopters in and out of their residences. Nisswa, he was told, does not have an ordinance about the use and does not put any regulations on residents with helicopters.
He also learned MnDOT does not regulate any of those helipads because they are not within 6 miles of an airport and don’t require a license.
Schieffer, however, lives about 3 miles away from the East Gull Lake Airport, meaning his helipad — if approved — would have to be licensed. That fact begs the question for some nearby residents — why does he need his own helipad if there’s an airport so close? Mason said the airport was donated to the city, and, until Feb. 18, he was under the impression no structures could be built at the airport as part of the agreement. But Mason said he found the deed from 1984 saying hangars or maintenance sheds could be constructed as long as they are not visible from County Highway 77. It also says no flora on the property should be disrupted except for horseback, bicycle, snowmobile or jogging trails. This newfound information means a hangar could technically be constructed at the airport, but in order for it to be out of sight from County Highway 77, Mason said there is only one wooded area where it could be constructed. But building something in that area would likely mean having to knock down trees, thus disrupting the natural flora.
“If they would allow it, I would have just built a hangar there and flown in there. It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal,” Schieffer said during a phone interview Feb. 11, noting he can’t leave his helicopter sitting outside.
Even the smallest dent, he added, can impact the helicopter’s ability to fly safely.
“So that’s why I need to land this thing on my property and put it inside a garage.”
Other airports in the vicinity include Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport about 16 miles away and Breezy Point Airport about 23 miles away.
Mason said an open forum during a planning and zoning meeting last summer generated some concern about noise levels and prompted a test landing. All residents within 1,900 feet of Schieffer’s property were notified of the test happening July 20 and were asked to pay attention to noise levels so they could give feedback. By September, Mason said the city received nine letters and emails from the 11 immediate neighbors expressing support for the helipad.
One of those letters came from Lisa Gudajtes, a next-door neighbor. Originally, Gudajtes said she felt she could trust Schieffer after talking with him and discovering he had kids the same age as her daughter. She said Schieffer told her the helipad would likely go either on top of his house or garage or across the road from his and Gudajtes’ houses, and that there would be fencing around the area.
Late in January, however, Gudajtes said she was approached by another resident asking how she could possibly support such a plan.
“And I said, ‘Well, what am I supporting?’ Because I didn’t see the papers,” Gudajtes said during a phone interview Feb. 10.
The papers — which had been part of Schieffer’s application for a conditional use permit to build his house — showed plans for the future home with a fire pit placed close to Gudajtes’ house and her daughter’s bedroom window.
She said she then brought the plans to Mason at city hall and learned the spot labeled “fire pit” not far from her property line may be the spot for a helipad. Gudajtes said it should be labeled as such on the plans and felt Schieffer and the city were not being honest about the plans. She then retracted her letter of support to the city, now opposing any sort of helipad near her home.
According to Schieffer, the plans are not finalized. They were submitted to the city so he could get a conditional use permit and start construction on his house. The rest of the details — such as where the helipad will go if it’s approved — are up in the air, and the fire pit area is not guaranteed to be used for a helipad.
“That is not the final location where the helicopter would land and/or take off from,” he said.
While Schieffer has a permit to build his house, the helipad itself is not yet a sure thing and, as such, was not discussed in the public hearing to issue the permit for the house.
Mason said the planning and zoning commission approved the house plans showing the potential for chopper storage, though the conditional use permit for the house did not indicate any pre-approval for the use.
Because there is no precedent for helicopter use in East Gull Lake or Cass County, Mason said the city’s attorney told him the city couldn’t issue a conditional use permit for a helipad until helipads are written into the city’s use ordinance. Mason said he came up with proposed guidelines for helipad use within the city. That proposal will go to a vote before the planning and zoning commission at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25, when residents will have the chance to speak during a public hearing. After that vote, the item will then go to the city council for final review. The city council can then either approve or deny it. The council does not have to follow the planning commission’s recommendation, but Mason said he has very rarely seen that happen in his time with the city. If it’s approved, Schieffer would then be able to finalize his plans and apply for a conditional use permit for a helipad. That process would trigger another public hearing on the issue before the city either approves or denies that permit. But if the helipad use ordinance fails, that will likely be the end of the issue.
Listening to both sides
The primary concerns for residents opposed to the helipad seem to be safety and noise pollution.
One opposing voice is Bruce Buxton, chair of the East Gull Lake Planning and Zoning Commission. Buxton is currently out of the state and will not be at the Feb. 25 meeting but has written to the city about his opposition.
“It just seems to me that we’re putting the neighbors potentially in danger having helicopters come in there,” Buxton said in a phone interview Feb. 13, again citing three recent fatal helicopter crashes.
Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash in California Jan. 25. Three soldiers died when a National Guard Helicopter crashed in Kimball Dec. 5. Two died and another was seriously injured when a North Memorial Helicopter crashed at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport in January 2019. Dense fog was a factor in the North Memorial crash, and weather conditions were likely an issue in Bryant’s case as well.
Buxton also questioned Schieffer’s flight experience.
Schieffer has his private pilot’s license and said he has been flying for about a year and a half.
“People are worried that I’m a new pilot, so to speak, and that is true. There’s no doubt about that. If again, if there was something I didn’t feel was safe, I wouldn’t do it,” Schieffer said, noting his house in East Gull Lake will not be finished for more than a year, which would give him time for that much more flight experience before flying his helicopter in the area.
Other concerns came through a Facebook page Gudajtes helped create at the end of January called “Help US Keep Heli Pads Out Of East Gull Lake.” The page has 85 “likes” and 97 followers. The posts include information on the issue, articles about helicopter crashes and letters written opposing Schieffer’s helipad. Comments on the posts raise concerns about ruining the area’s tranquility with the noise of a helicopter and dangers to both residents and wildlife. Many commenters oppose the idea of helicopters in residential areas altogether, saying they belong only at airports.
In 2018, Schieffer bought property on Pine Beach Peninsula in East Gull Lake but sold it shortly after. Rumors circulated of Schieffer wanting to build a helipad on the property but being struck down by Tom Ward, president of the Pine Beach Peninsula Homeowners Association.
While Ward is opposed to the current proposal for a helipad in East Gull Lake, he said Schieffer never approached him with the idea on the peninsula. Mason said Schieffer did not approach the city about a helipad until he bought the property on Floan Point. Schieffer denies any intent to build a helipad on Pine Beach Peninsula.
But as an ex-Army helicopter pilot, Ward is still opposed. Like many others, he cited safety concerns, especially with the lots so close together in East Gull Lake.
He also said the noise levels would likely be a concern — perhaps not for him on Pine Beach Peninsula but definitely for neighbors closer to Schieffer.
As far as noise levels, Schieffer said the sound from his Bell 206 is comparable to that of a garbage truck or a lawn mower.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates the noise level of gas-powered lawn mowers between 80-85 decibels, a range that could damage hearing after two hours of exposure. The CDC’s chart does not include helicopters, but 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.
While decibels are used to measure the intensity of sound, according to the CDC, intensity might not be the same as how loud a noise sounds to people. The decibel scale is logarithmic, which means loudness is not directly proportional to sound intensity. Instead, the intensity of sound grows quickly, meaning a sound at 20 decibels is 10 times more intense than a sound at 10 decibels. And two sounds that have equal intensity are not necessarily equally loud, the CDC reports. Loudness refers to how sounds are perceived. A sound that seems loud in a quiet room may not be noticeable when on a street corner with heavy traffic, even though the intensity is the same.
A representative from the Brainerd Helicopter Services who wished to not be named, but who has experience with Bell 206 aircrafts said the noise level would likely be significant to those nearby but he wasn’t sure of the exact levels.
An experienced pilot like himself, he said, only needs about three minutes to take off in a helicopter. A more novice pilot might take about 15-20 minutes, he said.
Aside from the noise, the biggest concern for the helicopter service employee is safety.
“If I had a neighbor that was doing this, I would want to ensure that there is no way that kids or animals could get into that area,” he said, noting helicopters often attract onlookers, who could potentially approach the craft and endanger themselves.
He said he has experienced this scenario more than once when helicopters are used in aerial firefighting.
“So the first thing I would be concerned about, No. 1, would be about the security of the area. … From a pilot perspective, I wouldn't want anybody to be able to get in there unless I let them in there,” he said. “And from an outside perspective, I wouldn't want anybody to be able to get in that area without being let in.”
Schieffer plans to construct a garage near his house to store the helicopter.
While the noise and safety concerns are still worrisome for Gudajtes, she also feels some deception from both Schieffer and East Gull Lake city staff as to what the real plans are. Even if the helipad were ultimately proposed to go across from the property on Scenic Drive — which Gudajtes said is what she believed to be the case in the first place — she said she would still be opposed to the idea because of how everything has transpired. In one of her last conversations with Mason, Gudajtes said she had three final thoughts: “No helipads, no heliports and no helicopters in East Gull Lake.”
“And that’s exactly how I feel,” she said.
Schieffer said he understands the neighbors’ concerns, but thinks they may not have all the pertinent information.
“I don’t think they would be opposed to the ordinance if they understood the measures being taken to ensure safety and the reality that it would not negatively impact property owners. It’s not going to impact their property, it’s not going to impact their enjoyment of their property.”
Schieffer believes helicopters are the safest modes of transportation and believes his Bell 206 is the safest helicopter.
“I firmly believe that from the bottom of my heart that flying a helicopter in good weather conditions is safer than putting me and my family on the road,” he said.
The Brainerd Airport Service representative said the Bell 206 model does not historically have an extensive crash record. But he chalks that up, in part, to them primarily being flown in professional settings by experienced, professional pilots. The pilots at the Brainerd Helicopter Service, for example, have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours under their belts, with most having accumulated 2,500-9,500 flight hours.
According to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, helicopter crashes have decreased in the last 25 years. Between 1985 and 1994, the organization reported an average of 198 helicopter crashes per year in the U.S., with 35 per year fatal. Those numbers have steadily decreased, with an average of 118 crashes reported per year between 2015-2017 and 18 per year fatal.
Schieffer said he takes safety seriously and does not take risks with weather, always making sure conditions are ideal before flying.
“If I thought for a second that anybody would be in danger as a result of my helicopter, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “ … The last thing I want to do would be to hurt anybody else, obviously. I sure as hell don’t want to hurt myself, and I sure as heck don’t want to hurt my family.”
In the proposed ordinance
Both the planning and zoning commission and the city council must approve the addition of helipad use to the city’s use ordinance before Schieffer or anyone else can apply for a helipad in East Gull Lake.
Under the proposed ordinance, Mason said 15 properties in the city would qualify to have helipads if they so choose, as the city would restrict the use to lake lots of 5 acres or more. That leaves 10 eligible lots on Gull Lake, three on Ruth Lake, one on Sylvan Lake and one on Dade Lake.
Anyone with a helipad on their property would only be able to take off and land twice a day, allowing a pilot to commute via helicopter but not give recreational rides. That would have to be done at the airport.
A helicopter would only be able to take off from a private property between 7 a.m. and dusk, provided wind speeds are less than 20 mph and conditions allow for at least a 1,000 foot cloud ceiling and 3 miles of visibility.
“What we’re trying to do is make it as safe as we possibly can for conditions,” Mason said.
Representatives from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and the MnDOT aeronautics department will be on hand at Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions.
“I’m trying to get as many experts in here to answer questions because my job as the planning and zoning administrator is to help people accomplish their dreams and desires in a legal manner,” Mason said. “And my job is to go out and find all the facts and figures and then let the planning commission make their decisions.”
Public meeting information
What: East Gull Lake Planning and Zoning Commission to consider adding helipads as a regulated use in the city’s use chart.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25.
Where: East Gull Lake City Hall.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .