Brainerd sign regulations loosen: Some council members still worry about free speech

Residents will now be able to have two ground-mounted signs and two flags with non-commercial speech in their yards.

A non-commercial speech sign stands in a yard in Brainerd. The city council approved changes to the city's sign ordinance Monday, April 19, 2021, to allow two ground-mounted signs and two flags with non-commercial speech in residents' yards. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

New sign regulations passed at the last Brainerd City Council meeting on a split vote.

With four council members in agreement and three opposed, the new guidelines allowing residents to have only two signs and two flags in their yards will now go into effect.

Those who opposed the measure, though, say it is an infringement on freedom of speech.

“I think the First Amendment to the United States constitution is pretty clear,” council member Gabe Johnson said when considering the ordinance changes Monday, April 19. “We shouldn’t be regulating what people say on their own private property. I just think it’s wrong. I don’t think we should do it. I think it’s immoral, unethical, unAmerican. … I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s friendly. I don’t think it’s what good governance is about.”

The issue cropped up after Community Development Director David Chanski told the city council in early March his department got several complaints over signs — mostly political in nature — in people’s yards.


Staff found that the city’s sign ordinance allowed non-commercial speech signs during election seasons but not technically at any other time of the year, which led to 71 residents receiving letters from the city asking them to take their signs down, even if they weren’t campaign related. Those letters were met with backlash from residents who felt they should not have to take down signs that are not political or felt the demand violated their First Amendment rights. That public outcry prompted the planning and zoning commission to revisit the ordinance.

The commission approved proposed changes March 17, which would allow residents to have two ground-mounted signs no bigger than 3 feet high or a total of 6 square feet and two flags. There are no size restrictions on flags, as Chanski said he has never had a complaint on the size of a flag.

What the ordinance does not restrict is the type of message that can be on a sign, a point council member and planning commission liaison Tad Erickson pointed out to the council Monday.

“We can’t touch the content of the sign, but only the number, placement and size, and that’s what we tried to focus on,” Erickson said.

Under the changes, signs must also be at least 15 feet back from the curb to ensure they are not in the public right of way, and they cannot hinder the triangle of visibility, which would occur if a sign on the corner lot obstructs the view of a driver coming up to an intersection. Signs also cannot be illuminated.

Come election time, residents are allowed to have any number of signs and flags, and they can be any size. These relaxed rules are in effect from 46 days before a state primary in a general election year until 10 days following the general election and 13 weeks prior to a special election until 10 days following the special election.

Chanski said the regulations are largely for aesthetic purposes, asking the planning commission and council if they wanted everyone in Brainerd to be able to have a yard full of signs.

Council members Mike O’Day and Kevin Stunek agreed with Johnson. O’Day said he believes the issue started with people complaining about signs they just didn’t like instead of the signs being too big or being a distraction.


Stunek said he is “totally about freedom of speech” and would also vote against it.

Erickson, along with council members Kelly Bevans, Dave Pritschet and Tiffany Stenglein, voted to approve the ordinance changes, pushing the measure to pass on a 4-3 vote.

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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