Brainerd officials want less light pollution, pass measures restricting outdoor lighting

Brainerd street lights illuminate Laurel Street and the Crow Wing County Judicial Center following a recent sunset. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Brainerd city officials adopted a newly revised outdoor lighting ordinance Monday, Feb. 3, after months of work on the part of the planning commission and a couple last minute revisions from the city council.

With the amendments, the maximum height of off-street lights and parking lot light poles is restricted to 13 feet in residential areas, 20 feet in most business districts and 25 feet in industrial districts, with taller allowances in specific situations. The previous maximum was 30 feet in all instances.

This ordinance does not cover lights in any city, county or state right of way, meaning lights along streets are exempt.


The changes result from the desire on the planning commission’s part to reduce light pollution in the city after attempting to impose stricter lighting standards on a number of conditional use permits in the city over the past couple years. Specifically, projects at Thrifty White Pharmacy and Harrison Elementary School drew concern from the planning commission, which ultimately imposed height restrictions of 13 feet on light poles in the parking lots related to those projects.

In September, a quorum of council members shot down the first round of amendments, which would have restricted lights in all zones to 13 feet, with a 20-foot option available with a conditional use permit.


Throughout the revision process, representatives from the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Brainerd Public Schools and Brainerd Public Utilities voiced concerns about what they described as the one-size-fits-all approach. The ordinance seemed arbitrarily too restrictive, they said, with shorter lights lending themselves to more vandalism, creating the need for a higher quantity — and therefore higher cost — of lights. Semitrailers are larger than 13 feet and would obstruct lights, possibly creating dark shadows and vehicle damage, opponents argued.

Planning commission members hosted more public hearings, took the comments into consideration and revised the ordinance, with the council adding further restrictions before adopting the ordinance.

Council discussion

Going into Monday’s meeting, the ordinance restricted lights in B-3, B-4, B-5 and B-6 districts (Central business, general commercial, commercial amusement and Washington Street commercial) to 13 feet — the same standards as residential.

After decrying the amendment’s restrictive nature throughout the process, Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to the council ahead of the final vote urging them reconsider some of the restrictions. The letter thanked the planning commission for hearing concerns and improving the ordinance but maintained some of the height restrictions were arbitrarily short and, as Kilian previously stated, could hinder economic development in the city if potential business owners have to jump through too many hoops.

“As we understand it, the goal of this ordinance is to reduce light pollution, especially in residential neighborhoods,” the letter stated. “This goal would be primarily accomplished by the proposed requirement of a fully shielded light fixture, which focuses light downward. Our businesses are not opposed to this.

“However, they do remain concerned about the proposed light poles, which remain arbitrarily short. We have questioned these heights on several occasions — most notably the insistence on 13 feet — and have not received an explanation as to their origin.”

Kilian then proposed a 15 foot maximum in B-1 and B-2 zones (residential office and neighborhood business) and a 20-foot maximum in B-3, B-4, B-5 and B-6 zones, while maintaining the proposed ordinance’s flexibility of lights up to 20 and 25 feet, respectively. This flexibility might come into play if lights are fully recessed (installed in a hollow opening) and/or shielded from view by an observer at 5 feet above the ground at the nearest property line.

Council member Kelly Bevans motioned to amend the ordinance with those suggestions before adoption, noting he understands the intent of less light pollution and is in favor of it but thought Kilian’s suggestions were easier to swallow. He also said he didn’t want business owners to have to constantly go through variance requests to get higher lights.


Council member Jan Lambert, liaison to the planning commission, reminded the council the higher allowances for fully recessed lights would be an administrative decision and would not require a variance or conditional use permit.

She said she would oppose Bevans’ motion because the planning commission put a lot of careful thought into its final proposal and already took public concerns into account.

Council members Dave Badeaux and Gabe Johnson said they were in favor of raising the heights to 20 feet in the B-3, B-4, B-5 and B-6 zones but wanted to keep the B-1 and B-2 zones at 13 feet, as those zones are intermixed with residential districts.

Bevans said he understood their thought process and amended his motion accordingly, which passed 5-1, with Lambert opposed and council member Kevin Stunek absent.
The ordinance will go into effect one week from its adoption.

In the new ordinance

Light pole restrictions mandated in the ordinance amendments are as follows:

  • Residential districts, including residential office, and neighborhood business districts (R-1, R-2, R-3, B-1 and B-2): Maximum height of 13 feet, with a possible allowance of 20 feet in certain circumstances.

The light fixture should be a full cutoff fixture, meaning light is cut off at an angle of 90 degrees or less and directs no light upward.

  • Central business, general commercial, commercial amusement and Washington Street commercial districts (B-3, B-4, B-5 and B-6): Maximum height of 20 feet, with a possible allowance of 25 feet in certain circumstances.

  • Light industrial and general industrial districts (I-1 and I-2): Maximum of 25 feet, with a possible allowance of 30 feet in certain circumstances.

The higher allowances in each zone may be approved if the light source is fully recessed (installed in a hollow opening) and/or shielded from view by an observer at 5 feet above the ground at the nearest property line.
In all districts, lights are allowed to be mounted directly on buildings but cannot exceed the height of the buildings.

The ordinance also mandates lighting at all outdoor athletic facilities to be shut off within 90 minutes of final activity.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
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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