A lakes area resident’s attempt at building a private helipad has once again been met with opposition from neighbors and uncertainty from public officials.
The Crow Wing County Planning Commission tabled a decision on issuing a conditional use permit to resident Doug Schieffer to construct a private helipad on property along Gull Lake Dam Road Thursday, July 15.
The helicopter 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.
But he’s trying again, this time with land he intends to purchase along Gull Lake Dam Road in Crow Wing County’s First Assessment District. The parcels of land at 4163 and 4121 Gull Lake Dam Road are zoned shoreline district and rural residential. An unnamed natural environmental lake to the southeast of the land creates the shoreland district designation.
Residents in the area, however, are not on board with Schieffer’s plan. Fifteen people who live in the neighborhood of the proposed helipad opposed the idea during the public hearing portion of Thursday’s planning commission meeting. County officials also received 19 letters of opposition.
“We are putting one person’s preference above an entire neighborhood at this point in time."
— Charity Mannie, Crow Wing County resident
Concerns about safety, noise, wildlife and property values all cropped up, just as they did for East Gull Lake residents last year.
Charity Mannie lives just across from the proposed site, and one of the flight plans would take the helicopter about 160 feet directly above her house.
“That, to me, is not fair at all,” she told the planning commission. “We are putting one person’s preference above an entire neighborhood at this point in time.
Mannie asked for an environmental impact study, noise and light pollution studies as well as compassion for those who may not be able to handle loud noises.
“We have family members with dementia that can’t handle loud noises. We’ve got family members that are veterans with PTSD that come over to our house,” she said. “We moved to the Brainerd lakes area and in that particular area to be somewhat close to the city but not be in the city. We don’t want the traffic, we don’t want the noise that comes with having a helipad or a heliport installed there.”
Another resident mentioned her mother with dementia, who is scared of loud noises and would likely not handle a nearby helicopter well.
Mannie and others worried about the effects on the wetland area at the proposed site and all the animals who live there, like loons, eagles and Blanding’s turtles, the last of which are a threatened species.
Some speakers emphasized the quiet atmosphere as the reason they live where they do, while others presented concerns about a helipad being detrimental to property values and about potential crashes, with the fatal June 2019 North Memorial Health helicopter crash at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport still fresh in everyone’s minds.
Allyn Schlicht, who lives on Gull River Road, said East Gull Lake already set a precedent by denying Schieffer’s original proposal because of the residential nature of the area.
Dan Noonkesser, a River Ridge Drive resident near the proposed site, said he couldn’t believe Schieffer’s audacity to make a request like this one to benefit only himself in a neighborhood of homeowners.
“Our vote is in,” Noonkesser said of his neighborhood, “and now we place, I guess, ourselves in your hands hoping that you as good, sensible people have listened to our comments and will make a vote that would reflect how you would react if you had the same decision to make as we have. Would you want a heliport in your residential neighborhood?”
Speakers also mentioned the East Gull Lake Airport and Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport not far from Schieffer’s property that would be much better suited for landing a helicopter.
Free use of property
For Schieffer, the issue is about being free to use his property in the way he wants.
“As far as transportation goes, some people choose cars, trucks, motorcycles, seaplanes, etc. I choose a helicopter, and all of these methods of transportation must follow MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) guidelines for noise, and I am no different,” Schieffer said Thursday.
Flying his helicopter is a passion of his as well as the preferred method of transportation when having to travel to places like North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Duluth for work.
“As far as transportation goes, some people choose cars, trucks, motorcycles, seaplanes, etc. I choose a helicopter."
— Doug Schieffer, helipad applicant
Schieffer argued against the noise, wildlife, property value and safety concerns brought forth, in the same manner as in East Gull Lake.
The residents in that area already live near Brainerd International Raceway, nearby noisy Highway 371 and not far from the East Gull Lake Airport, with small planes flying in the area nearly every day.
Schieffer cited a noise comparison study from Purdue University, equating the decibel level of helicopters to lawn mowers and motorcycles. 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.
“Nobody’s coming here with any facts because they can’t find anything factual that says I’m wrong. I’ve provided the data for noise,” Schieffer said. “And furthermore, if people do hear me, it’s a transitory sound that lasts for maybe 30 seconds. It’s not the road noise of Gull Dam Road, BIR or 371. It’s not like lawn mowers that run for hours. So I’m a little confused. Why is it they can listen to airplanes multiple times a day, road noise, but maybe, maybe once a week, don’t want to listen 20 seconds, 30 seconds to hear me?”
A 1992 study from the Federal Aviation Administration analyzed the risk of helicopter landing site accidents. The study found the risk of a helicopter accident near a heliport that has 400 annual flights is about one accident every 495 years.
The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team did a followup study in 2016, reviewing 185 helicopter accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board between 1965-2013. The study found more than 90% of accidents occurred at heliports that did not adhere to the FAA’s heliport design guidance. In most cases, the accident occurred because there was something — like a tree or a building — that should not have been as close to the heliport as it was. The study also found no bystanders or anyone from the general public had been injured or killed from a helicopter accident occurring at a private heliport.
Schieffer said he is willing to follow reasonable guidelines set by the Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics Office and wants to be as safe as possible.
Conditions in the permit, if the county chooses to award it, could set specific times and weather conditions during which Schieffer is allowed to fly and how often he could take off and land, as the proposed ordinance amendment in East Gull Lake did.
In terms of nearby airports, Schieffer would not be able to build the heated hangar he would need — and plans to build along with his helipad if allowed — at the East Gull Lake Airport because of terms in the agreement by which the airport was donated to the city.
The only heated hangars at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, he said, are community hangars. And for security reasons, Schieffer does not want to house his helicopter with other aircraft. If he wants to be able to use the hangar year-round, it must be heated.
Kyle Hart, a Minneapolis attorney representing Schieffer, reminded planning commission members they must, by law, have concrete proof of real, adverse effects to neighboring properties to deny a conditional use permit application. While he said he did not want to discount the neighbors’ feelings, speculation and fear are not grounds on which to deny a conditional use permit.
Hart said Schieffer would work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure wildlife protection.
Hart also argued East Gull Lake did not set a precedent in its denial of Schieffer’s request because the city did not have helicopters and helipads as an acceptable use in its city code, which is why Schieffer asked for an ordinance amendment. If that had been granted, he then would have had to apply for a conditional use permit. Crow Wing County, however, does allow private airports through a conditional use permit.
The plans in Schieffer’s conditional use permit application meet all setback requirements, county officials said, and include a stormwater retention plan and best management practices plan for construction.
The Crow Wing County Highway Department had no concerns about the plan, county officials said, and the MnDOT Aeronautics Office agreed to work with Schieffer to make sure he is following regulations, should the permit request be granted.
Planning commission member Sue Maske said she understands the hangar restrictions at the East Gull Lake Airport but has not seen concrete proof the airports in Brainerd and Breezy Point cannot accommodate Schieffer’s needs.
Commissioner Rick Skogen said he agreed with Hart, acknowledging the commission would need substantive reasoning to deny the permit request. After speaking with a representative at the MnDOT Aeronautics office who Skogen said wanted to come do a site visit but was unable to before the meeting, Skogen suggested tabling the issue until a site visit can be arranged.
The rest of the commission agreed to table the measure for the time being, with the exception of Maske, who opposed Skogen’s motion.