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Brainerd City Council approves measures to further school district projects

A performing arts center is becoming a reality for the Brainerd School District. A variance request and conditional use permit consideration came before the Brainerd City Council Monday, June 3, both of which passed, bringing the 1,200-seat audit...

Tim Ramerth, of Widseth Smith Nolting, and Brainerd Public Schools Superintendent Laine Larson discuss a conditional use permit for updates to Brainerd High School with Brainerd City Council members during a council meeting Monday, June 3, at city hall. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Tim Ramerth, of Widseth Smith Nolting, and Brainerd Public Schools Superintendent Laine Larson discuss a conditional use permit for updates to Brainerd High School with Brainerd City Council members during a council meeting Monday, June 3, at city hall. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

A performing arts center is becoming a reality for the Brainerd School District.

A variance request and conditional use permit consideration came before the Brainerd City Council Monday, June 3, both of which passed, bringing the 1,200-seat auditorium and performing arts center approved during last year's referendum closer to fruition.

First, the council approved the school district's variance request for a 15-foot front yard setback for the performing arts center, which will be connected to the north side of Brainerd High School. Though city code requires 30-foot front yard setbacks in single family estate residential districts, the planning commission hosted a public hearing in May and recommended the council approve the request.

Next, council members approved a conditional use permit application for the high school, allowing for an addition to the building, remodeling of the building, new parking, a new pool, a new auxiliary gym and construction of a performing arts center.

After hearing testimony from school district representatives regarding the conditional use permit, the council did not follow the planning commission's recommendations.

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When the planning commission reviewed the project, much of the discussion centered around the proposed parking lot to the east of the school, specifically the lot's lighting and landscaping. Though the school district proposed 23-foot lighting poles, the planning commission approved conditions stating the light poles should not exceed 13 feet, but noted a compromise may be made if an acceptable height was brought forth. Also under the planning commission's conditions: lights must be reduced 50% between 11 p.m. and dawn, the planning commission must approve a parking lot landscaping plan, and the school district must reconcile the parking lot islands to have both trees and lights. Planning commission member Chuck Marohn opposed the measure.

In response to the planning commission's recommendations, Superintendent Laine Larson and Widseth Smith Nolting representative Tim Ramerth urged the council to reconsider Monday night.

While noting the highest light pole height allowed under city code is 30 feet, Ramerth illustrated the advantages of 23-foot lights versus 13-foot lights, which included a wider coverage area, fewer lights needed and a lower cost.

First, Ramerth said taller lights produce better lighting angles for higher vehicles and reduce shadowing between vehicles, creating fewer places for potential intruders to hide.

If the light poles were 13 feet high, Ramerth said the parking lot would require 43 poles at a cost of about $174,200. On the other hand, if the poles are 23 feet high, only 18 would be needed, costing about $81,600. Those price estimates do not include maintenance costs.

Ramerth provided photos of nearby buildings, including the Brainerd Public Library, Brainerd Savings and Loan, Short Elliott Hendrickson and the YMCA, all of which have light poles ranging from 21 to 30 feet.

"So we're proposing something that is consistent with our neighbors or even lower," Ramerth said.

Council member Sue Hilgart was struck by the cost difference between the different light pole heights, though also noting she understands the planning commission's intent to preserve the aesthetic of the neighborhood.

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"We can't be good fiscal stewards of the public's money and the school district's public money by requiring that they spend almost three times as much on lighting when they're plan was indeed under the maximum height limit to start with," Hilgart said.

In terms of a timer reducing the illumination 50% from 11 p.m. to dawn, Ramerth suggested a caveat be added to allow the lights at maximum brightness until all students get back from sporting events or other activities, as some nights buses may not return until after 11 p.m. Right now he said the buildings and grounds crew manually alters the brightness level, so that should not be an issue going forward.

Instead of requiring planning commission approval of a landscaping plan for the parking lot, Ramerth offered instead city staff work closely with the district on the project.

"We have very qualified staff at the city of Brainerd; we should be able to work with the city of Brainerd staff to modify that landscaping plan to further enhance what would be required," Ramerth said.

Council member Jan Lambert, liaison to the planning commission, spoke in support of the district's requests, despite having previously assented to the planning commission's proposal. She said the planning commission did not have all the detailed information-like cost differences for light poles and the existence of means to manually lower brightness-Ramerth presented Monday.

And the desire for a landscaping plan, she said, came from the parking lot at the new Thrifty White on Washington Street, which has been met with opposition since its construction, including regarding a lack of landscaping.

"We kind of got burnt on Thrifty, and so we're kind of gun shy," Lambert said of the planning commission's original thoughts.

The council unanimously agreed to school district's conditions, which include:

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• Light poles will not exceed 23 feet and will include external glare shields.

• Lights will be reduced to 50% illumination between 11 p.m. and dawn, except for special events or student activities that finish later.

• School district officials will work with city staff on a landscaping plan but do not need approval on the plan from the planning commission.

Performing arts center

Construction on the performing arts center is set to begin this fall. During that time, BHS will lose almost 300 student parking spots to construction equipment, so the city council agreed to designate the East River Road parking lot as student permitted parking during school hours for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. The school district will be responsible for striping and snowplowing the lot, while the city will continue to maintain all greenspaces. With proper striping, Community Development Director David Chanski said the district should be able to get about 80 spots out of the parking lot.

Construction is expected to be completed prior to the 2020-21 school year, but Superintendent Laine Larson requested the council approve an additional year for the parking lot in case construction is not complete, which she said is entirely possible on a project of this magnitude.

The lot will still be available for public use outside of school hours.

The lot will revert to the city if funding becomes available for the Mississippi Landing Trailhead project.

Related Topics: BRAINERD HIGH SCHOOL
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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