Work continues on Brainerd’s outdoor lighting ordinance, as community members maintain opposition to the planning commission’s proposed amendment.

As it stands, the ordinance allows light poles up to 30 feet high. With the amendment, outdoor light sources would be restricted to a default of 13 feet or less in both residential and commercial districts. Lights could be raised to 20 feet with a conditional use permit.

The commission now instructed Community Development Director David Chanski to draft a new proposal to bring forth at a workshop to be scheduled in the coming months.

The original proposal resulted from an attempt on the planning commission’s part to impose stricter lighting standards on a number of conditional use permit applications over the past two years.

Specifically, applications from Thrifty White Pharmacy, Harrison Elementary School and Brainerd High School drew concern from the planning commission. Thrifty White and Harrison eventually agreed to the condition of 13 foot light poles for their properties. But in the high school case, district administrators appealed to the city council regarding lighting in the proposed parking lot to the east of the school.

Eventually, the council agreed in June to allow light poles up to 23 feet at the high school.

The planning commission, however, continued to work on amending the ordinance, which the council originally condoned.

But when the amendment came before a quorum of council members in September, three out of the four members present opposed even sending it back to the planning commission for further changes, noting they did not feel the need for a change at all. Jan Lambert, council liaison to the planning commission, was the lone proponent, while Gabe Johnson, Kevin Stunek and Kelly Bevans were opposed.

Council members based that decision largely on the testimony of four community members -- Matt Kilian of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Scott Magnuson of Brainerd Public Utilities, Tim Ramerth of Widseth Smith Nolting and Mike Higgins of the Brainerd Industrial Center. The major points the men brought up were the restrictiveness of the ordinance and its “one-size fits all” approach, the fact that semitrailers are 13.5 feet high, the increased costs likely associated with the need for more light poles if they are lower, and safety concerns.

At the next planning commission meeting, the group expressed frustration with the council’s decision and agreed to not only revisit the ordinance, but have its own public hearing.

About 25 people filled the council chambers at city hall Wednesday, Oct. 16, several of which spoke during the hearing.

Before listening to comments, commission member Chuck Marohn emphasized the ordinance amendment sets the default height at 13 feet, while still allowing 20-foot light poles with a conditional use permit, ultimately making the maximum height allowed 20 feet.

Kilian, Higgins and Ramerth brought their original points back, with Higgins noting he believes light pollution is an issue in the city and he’s not opposed to ordinance changes that would differentiate commercial and residential properties.

“If I’m putting a business up in an industrial park or I’m redoing a building over at BIC or in the middle of NP (Northern Pacific Center), I don’t think it should be that big of a deal where I got to come fight for something higher than a 13-foot light,” Higgins said.

After some questions back and forth, Marohn said the conditional use permit, as it stands, requires the planning commission to come up with “very, very compelling” reasons to restrict light poles below 30 feet. Instead, Marohn said he would like to see the opposite, with applicants providing compelling reasons to heighten lights.

Kilian said businesses want to be good neighbors to residents, but both he and Ramerth said 13 feet seems arbitrary and again noted the height of semis. Ramerth added other machinery or equipment -- especially in commercial areas -- might be taller yet, which would impede the light from 13 foot streetlights.

Reid Theisse, building and grounds director at the Brainerd School District, joined the conversation Wednesday, emphasizing safety as the No. 1 priority for school officials when looking at this ordinance.

“You can see outside right now, at 7 p.m. when most events would be going on, it is black. And so we want to make sure that the safety around our buildings is first and foremost,” he said, noting lower poles create more shadowing.

Community Development Director David Chanski read about half a dozen letters of opposition to the amendment, hitting on many of the same points speakers mentioned, including cost, restrictiveness and the dislike of a “one-size fits all” ordinance.

Matt Seymour, owner of various gas stations in the area, including Pine Square and College Square, wrote in his statement about damage he has seen to the 14 and a half foot high canopy and lights at one of his stations from a large trailer, reiterating the earlier point about 13 feet being too low.

The only comment in favor of the amendment came in the form of a written statement from Kathleen Hermerding, who lives near Thrifty White Pharmacy. She stated she often walks outside before sunrise and is aware of how much illumination is needed, noting 13-foot light poles are plenty high enough.

Planning commission Chair Don Gorham thanked everyone for coming and sharing their input.

Lambert then said she now believes 13 feet is too restrictive, and commissioner Chris Foley said he thinks different lighting is appropriate under different circumstances. As someone who lives near Thrifty White, Foley said he likes the 13-foot poles in a residential setting, but that might not be ideal for commercial uses.

Light poles 13 feet high illuminate the parking lot at Thrifty White Pharmacy on Washington Street in Brainerd. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Light poles 13 feet high illuminate the parking lot at Thrifty White Pharmacy on Washington Street in Brainerd. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Commissioner Theresa Woodward pointed to an example from the city of Tucson, Arizona, which one resident referenced in a written statement. Tucson’s outdoor lighting ordinance includes a table that takes into account zoning, acreage and light brightness when determining light pole restrictions.

Woodward also added the issue might not even be a height issue, but rather an issue of lumens, which are the units used to measure the amount of light emitted from bulbs.

“There isn’t anything to stop me from putting a really bright bulb on the side of my garage. We have the technology now to have very bright LED bulbs that can go in household fixtures,” she said. “... We can direct a large amount of light that would adequately fill, say the Brainerd Industrial Center parking lot, and have it guided and contained. Perhaps that would give us a better variation and make it a little easier to structure this if we do it on lumens rather than pole height.”

The general consensus among commission members was to revise ordinance requirements to differentiate between different zones so as not to be one size fits all. Gorham said the main idea he heard for the new ordinance was to start low in terms of height and gradually get higher based on various factors.

Marohn argued that’s what the original amendment sought to do.

Ultimately, Chanski said he would work to draft a new ordinance and then schedule a workshop to discuss his new proposal, with the goal of finding a new recommendation to bring forth at a public hearing.

Chanski said he would likely base his proposal off of Northfield’s lighting ordinance, which sets a default 12-foot height for residential zones and 20-foot poles for commercial districts.

No matter what kind of changes are ultimately brought forward, Marohn stressed he wants the ordinance to be as easy to read as the original amendment and not require any type of architectural or engineering background.

Kilian closed out the discussion by asking commissioners to make sure Brainerd is not an outlier when drafting a new ordinance.

s not an outlier when drafting a new ordinance.