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Seasonal resident’s helipad proposal shot down again

Tuesday’s decision was the culmination of a moratorium established in August 2021 followed by a study of the issue, prompted by a conditional use permit application from Doug Schieffer to construct a helipad on property along Gull Lake Dam Road for the purposes of commuting by air.

Man speaks at podium during public meeting
Kyle Hart, an attorney representing a seasonal East Gull Lake resident attempting to build a private helipad, speaks to the Crow Wing County Board during the Tuesday, April 12, 2022, meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — A change to Crow Wing County’s land use ordinance once again stymied the ongoing pursuit of a private helipad by a seasonal East Gull Lake resident.

County commissioners on Tuesday, April 12, unanimously approved updates to the ordinance, including a shift to no longer allowing private airports in the shoreland district. Previously, the ordinance permitted this use in the shoreland district, along with the agriculture/forestry and airport districts, through a conditional use permit.

Tuesday’s decision was the culmination of a moratorium established in August 2021 followed by a study of the issue , prompted by a conditional use permit application from Doug Schieffer to construct a helipad on property along Gull Lake Dam Road for the purposes of commuting by air. Schieffer’s conditional use permit application was considered by the Crow Wing County Planning Commission in July 2021, when the group tabled the matter , seeking more information in the face of opposition from neighbors.

Attorney Kyle Hart, who represents Schieffer, argued against the ordinance change during Tuesday’s meeting and said the board had no factual basis for the move.

“There’s nothing in the record to suggest that anyone thought that airports were dangerous, noisy, had fuel issues, wildlife issues — none of that stuff was ever articulated,” Hart said. “ … It’s safer than a Jet Ski, safer than a boat, it’s safer than your bathtub, safer than a car. All the evidence that we presented also shows that airports comply with all MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) requirements. Obviously, they would, otherwise they wouldn't be allowed to exist.”

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The issue originally arose in Cass County in 2019 , when Schieffer bought land on Floan Point in East Gull Lake to build a seasonal home and wanted to use his helicopter to commute between the new home and his Twin Cities office and residence. But because the city did not have any regulations pertaining to helipads in its ordinances, Schieffer petitioned to amend the ordinance and allow helipads as an acceptable use.

After a series of public meetings and hundreds of comments from neighbors against the proposal, both the East Gull Lake Planning Commission and city council denied the measure in July and August 2020, leaving Schieffer without the ability to build a helipad.

Schieffer altered his plan and focused on parcels of land at 4163 and 4121 Gull Lake Dam Road, which are zoned shoreline district and rural residential and located in Crow Wing County rather than Cass County. An unnamed natural environmental lake to the southeast of the land creates the shoreland district designation.

Just last month, Schieffer revived the issue again in East Gull Lake , submitting a new proposal seeking an ordinance change and a conditional use permit. A glossy card sent to postal customers from an organization called EGL Property Rights, with a post office box in Nisswa, promoted Schieffer’s proposal and appealed to people to support the helipad on the basis of protecting landowner rights. But two hours before a meeting to discuss the matter, he requested it be pulled from the agenda.

A helicopter landing in a field is the image on a mailing card stating "the helipad requested by a homeowner in East Gull Lake, MN is about so much more than landing a helicopter."
A glossy card, mailed to postal customers, states the issues go beyond the helipad request to being about landowner rights in East Gull Lake.
The mailing to postal customers in the area was from EGL Property Rights, Nisswa.

As part of its study on private airport regulations, Crow Wing County reviewed ordinances in seven other counties: Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Morrison, St. Louis, Scott and Stearns. The study found in six of the seven, private airports are prohibited in shoreland districts. This includes Scott County, where Schieffer gained a permit for a helipad as a conditional use. That county allows people to seek a conditional use permit for personal or private airports in three agricultural districts along with transitional and rural residential reserve districts.

“The primary concern (of nearby property owners) is often their safety should an aircraft malfunction and cause damage to property and life,” the study stated. “Even with safe operations, concerns can arise relating to the significant noise generated by the aircraft, the storage of flammable fuels and simply the visual aspect of having aircraft present on properties where a more traditional residential look and feel is expected.”

Hart dismissed Crow Wing County’s study as failing to provide any evidence backing up the concerns of neighbors and accused the county board of making an arbitrary and unfair decision to change the ordinance. He said noise generated by occasional takeoffs and landings was less obtrusive than a chain saw and said some people even use helicopter white noise to aid in sleep.

Hart also pointed to what he characterized as an inconsistency with the county’s approach to private airports when it comes to seaplane bases.

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“On one hand, the planning and zoning commission said you can continue to use these seaplane bases, which are obviously in shoreland districts, but you can’t build any new ones. Neither the county study nor the planning commission articulated why it was okay for people in non-shoreland districts also to be exposed to whatever unarticulated risks are posed by private airports in shoreland districts,” Hart said.

“ … It’s arbitrary, it’s capricious and it’s really disingenuous for the county to change its zoning laws from allowing private airports in shoreland districts under a CUP (conditional use permit), which is the current standard, to prohibiting them in shoreland district, while simultaneously allowing seaplane bases to operate in shoreland districts.”

According to the Crow Wing County study, the primary focus was on-land private airports rather than seaplane bases, because the county does not have jurisdiction over planes landing on public waters. Aitkin and Beltrami counties allow seaplane bases as a conditional use on certain lake classifications, but also did not allow land-based private airports in those same areas.

The County Board received comments from the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics and the Gull Chain of Lakes Association concerning the proposed change.

Junior Lindsay, planning program coordinator with MnDOT, expressed no concerns with the county’s proffered changes.

“The proposal still allows for conditional use permits to be applied for in the Agricultural/Forestry and Airport Districts,” Lindsay’s response stated.

Linda Harrier, board chair of the Gull Chain of Lakes Association, said the organization’s board supported the county’s change and recommended commissioners approve it.

“It will prevent issues including but not limited to the following; run off of chemicals from helicopter/aircraft into the water table, noise pollution, excessive wind velocity and helicopter rotor downwash,” Harrier wrote. “It will prevent the proximity of a helicopter/aircraft to other residences which could create a disturbance affecting peace and tranquility. Wildlife in the Shoreland District such as loons, ducks, eagles, songbirds, hummingbirds, etc., would not be negatively impacted by the noise, wind and downward air velocity from helicopters/aircraft.”

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The county Planning Commission also unanimously recommended the draft changes at its March 17 meeting, where no one spoke during a public hearing on updates to the land use ordinance. Following commissioner approval Tuesday, the changes are set to go into effect May 11 with the interim ordinance establishing the moratorium repealing May 12.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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