Baxter renews look at its solar energy options

City Council consensus clarifies rooftop solar power is available across zoning districts and looks at more green energy practices.

Tesla chargers in a parking lot.
Tesla chargers rise from the snow at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Baxter.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — Can anyone add solar panels to rooftops or solar arrays to their yards in Baxter?

With green energy discussions and the recent addition of a solar array next to a residential area as Brainerd Public Utilities trades trees for sun power, the Baxter City Council took a recent look at its regulations for solar.

Currently, the city code reflects the changes made as a result of the BPU solar array application looking at multiple ground-based solar arrays. The city approved an ordinance in January to allow the solar array and commercial production of solar energy on BPU land zoned as public benefit, meaning other public zoned properties could get a conditional use permit to so a ground-based solar array like BPU.

Tesla chargers in a parking lot.
Tesla chargers are lined up in the parking lot near Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Baxter.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

In looking at changes, Josh Doty, community development director, noted two options — either a minimalist approach or one described as a comprehensive energy ordinance, which would likely mean seeking grants and working with a consultant.

The city’s zoning ordinance is silent on the solar additions. But the city has approved homeowner requests in the past, which have typically meant solar roof panels.


Doty reported the city approved all solar requests submitted for review, such as the rooftop solar applications for single family homes, Sprucewood Townhomes on Grand Oaks Drive, and the Northland Arboretum. And the city approved the green building techniques for the EkoMarkt building, the eco-friendly building by Baxter Village off Highway 371 owned by Dr. Jeanni Foss, who also has the Edgewood Dental practice there. Doty reported those applications were approved with building/electrical permits.

“As rooftop solar applications have little to no visual impact on neighboring properties, staff has essentially viewed these improvements as architectural materials,” Doty reported to the council during a March 21 workshop session.

Baxter City Council members listen to a presentation in city hall.
Josh Doty, left, Baxter community development director, speaks to the City Council on March 21, 2023, regarding green energy and specifically solar options for residents and businesses. At the council table are Connie Lyscio, Zach Tabatt, Mayor Darrel Olson, Jeff Phillips, and Mark Cross, along with Brad Chapulis, city administrator.
Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

In addition to rooftop panels, a single ground-mounted solar panel was approved for a single family home near BPU. In that instance, the panels were on a singular post in a side yard and the homeowner worked with the city for screening. Options for solar can include multiple poles and multiple panels for individual energy production for a homeowner or business.

Basic approach

For the minimalist approach, Doty said the city could make it clear the option is there for solar with rooftop solar available for all zoning districts. The use of solar would come with basic regulations on impacts to neighboring properties so if an office next to a residential area wanted to add solar, they could do so with the nearby homeowners in mind.

“We can fairly easily put together an ordinance that approves kind of what our practice has been, as I just outlined allowing rooftop solar applications as an accessory use in all zoning districts,” Doty said. “So anyone can do rooftop solar.”

Solar panels are visible on a home roof
Solar power has been harnessed in residential areas across the country, like this one, and in lakes area businesses and homes. The city of Baxter is working to make it more clear solar is an option within the city.
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service

The city could make that clear in the code, Doty said, so people see it as they do their due diligence for solar or search online to see if it is welcome in Baxter.

Doty cautioned the city would want a similar evaluation for office, commercial and industrial zoning as it did for the public benefit zoning as those types of facilities may entail larger solar arrays on the ground, which creates a different visual than a roof-mounted system.

The solar ordinance developed with BPU’s application, for the ground solar array, came with specific requirements: a height not more than 15 feet; security lighting shielded to prevent glare beyond the property; setbacks of 100 feet from streets, roads and driveways; setback of 200 feet from all neighboring principal structures or 150 feet from the property line, whichever is less; year-round screening of 90% opacity next to homes, public streets and adjacent property; landscape plan for trees and a forest management plan; signs and fencing requirements; and a note that all material associated with the array must be non-reflective.


Other green energy

Doty said the city could also look at non-solar green improvements to the city code, such as electrical vehicle charging stations. When the electric vehicle charging station was put in next to Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter some years ago, it was believed to be the second one in the state outside of the metro area. More recently, a second e-charging facility was approved at Kohl’s.

“Another one that we could look at making clear in the code that we allow Is geothermal,” Doty said. “And I don't think the city has any major zoning concerns, at least from a staff perspective, about geothermal because the improvements, when completed, are underground. We do have one system that we approved for single family geothermal, and that was for the building permit application.”

Another possible non-solar improvement, Doty said, is porous pavement with several applications for different types of porous pavement, which allows water to go through it instead of running off. Doty described a porous pavement option resembling a rice crispy treat but a harder surface. Others are more aggregate based in a lattice framework. Concerns are with the need to clean and maintain the porous pavement so it doesn’t become clogged or, as with the aggregate option, have gravel or rocks leaving the property. Trevor Walter, Baxter public works director and city engineer, said for any renewable energy the question may be will it be maintained or what will it look like in 10-15 years.

Solar arrays are erected on a paved area
Brad Chapulis, city administrator, also noted other areas, perhaps without as much winter as this climate, put up solar arrays in their parking lots with complex systems and moved to underground parking for vehicles.
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service

“Another route the city could take is a more comprehensive ordinance. Some cities have elected to develop a whole chapter in the code for green energy,” Doty said, noting the only thing the city hasn’t touched is wind energy.

Council member Connie Lyscio asked about going with the baseline approach and then researching if grants are available to hire a consultant. Doty said if they knew grants were available then everything would be covered in a comprehensive ordinance. If the city wanted to do a baseline and monitor it, that would be more of an argument to go with the minimal approach, Doty said.

Council member Zach Tabatt said his idea, when he brought up the need to discuss solar further, was to define in a larger sense what the city was already doing but he was fine with going beyond that as well.

“I guess in my mind that's rooftop solar everywhere, without real meaningful restriction,” Tabatt said. “Just rooftop solar is OK. Geothermal is OK.”

Tabatt also described solar thermal as a big wall panel, which he would also support.


Tesla chargers in a parking lot.
Tesla chargers at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Baxter.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Council member Mark Cross said there are also alternative options for wind energy with a vertical turbine approach versus the blades, which is supposed to make less noise and basically looks like an antenna. Cross noted there are also structural issues people have to consider when adding solar panels as it may not simply work on top of an existing roof.

Recapping, Doty said it sounded like the council wanted to consider single family mounted solar as well but leave out the other zoning districts. If it gets bigger, Doty said, he would lean toward getting a consultant because with apartments, townhomes or others, the size area needed for the solar panels is also going to expand.

Brad Chapulis, city administrator, also noted other areas, perhaps without as much winter as this climate, put up solar arrays in their parking lots with complex systems and moved to underground parking for vehicles.

Solar arrays can also be suspended above parking lots, Doty said, noting if it gets to this complexity with systems the city needs a proper ordinance in place with assistance to complete it. Tabatt said the more they talk, the more he leaned to that approach. If someone wanted to turn a parking lot, which isn’t something that he sees as inherently aesthetically pleasing, into a solar array, he’d lean toward allowing it.

In the end, the council consensus was for a minimal baseline approach for now with ground solar for a single family home use.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at @DispatchBizBuzz.

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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