Focusing the light

Protecting the night sky and architectural lighting for beautification were before the Brainerd Planning Commission as it looks a new light ordinance.

The northern lights.
Ted Otto of Brainerd took this photo between 9:20 and 11:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, 2023, at his home about 13 miles south of Brainerd, just west of Highway 25.
Contributed / Ted Otto

BRAINERD — Dancing northern lights were even visible, if a bit more faint, from residences in Brainerd Thursday, March 23, and recent discussions on regulating light to protect the night sky may keep them from fading entirely.

Earlier this month, Kevin Yeager from the Brainerd Planning Commission, said the work to craft new standards was almost there. As with anything, the work is in the details and in differing opinions on architectural lights.

On a recent wintry night, Planning Commission member Michael Duval’s backyard was as bright as day and not just from light captured beneath an overcast sky or skyglow. A light shining from a property on another block separated by a city street was still starkly white from inside the home looking toward the backyard. Duval displayed the image during a Brainerd Planning Commission session Wednesday, March 16. He used the picture to make a point as the commission looked at the specific wording on amendments to the city’s outdoor lighting ordinance .

“I can tell you it was at 10 o'clock at night, it was like daylight in my backyard,” Duval said.


Discussions on updated light standards have looked at the color temperature of lamps, dimmable lights so that nonresidential lighting would dim by at least 50% or turn off at 10 p.m. or an hour after the business closes.

A street light illuminates the neighborhood Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Brainerd.
A street light illuminates the neighborhood Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Residents living in Brainerd neighborhoods can still see comets streaking across the sky or make out the constellations with the Big Dipper and Orion on display in recent night skies. But light pollution from fixtures without shields to focus it on the intended target — whether that is a city intersection, a parking lot or a residential home — are sending light well beyond their own space and reducing what can be seen on a starry night.

In February, the Brainerd Planning Commission had staff members review the outdoor lighting ordinance, looking specifically at lights in residential areas and those in what the city denotes as public semi-public zoning. That zoning class covers community gathering spaces including health care, places of worship, schools, parks and the like.

In looking at the ordinance, James Kramvik, community development director, reported language from the commercial performance standards was applied to residential areas — specifically a 90-degree cutoff for light, which helps protect the night sky and direct light where it is desired, and exemptions for architectural lighting.

Light from a neighborhing property is shown in a photo provided by Brainerd Planning Commission member Michael Duval.
Contributed / Brainerd Planning Commission

At the start of the year, the Planning Commission sought an amended light ordinance looking at light color, dimmable lights and adding the community gathering spaces to the residential lighting standards. Kramvik said the city’s Parks and Recreation Board was interested in dimmable lighting for parks but wanted to review it.

With the proposed ordinance, Kramvik said staff looked at moving the commercial and industrial district design and applying that to the residential district standards. Kramvik said the language recommends architectural landscape lights that include fixtures that are not shielded or lighting of entire facades or architectural features be permitted but not allowed to affect neighboring properties in excess of what the ordinance allows.

Duval suggested alternative language.

“We had a discussion about this in February,” Duval said. “It was my impression that we had general consensus that downlighting would be the preferred way to do architectural lighting of buildings where you're splashing light onto a structure. … The current language provided here doesn't really capture the point about it being downlighting or downcast lighting.”


Light Kelvings.JPG
A lighting chart included in the agenda packet for the Jan. 17, 2023 Brainerd City Council meeting shows the warm-colored light emitted by 3,000 Kelvins, which is the maximum temperature proposed by city staff in a new lighting policy.

Duval’s proposed language included any architectural light source be applied to be downcast to protect the night sky. He suggested moving that standard to industrial and business standards so outdoor lighting of fixed structures would be brought across all the zoning districts.

In five principles from from the Illumination Engineering Society and the International Dark Sky Association the commission looked at previously — that all light should have a purpose, light should be directly only where needed, light shouldn’t be brighter than necessary, light should be used only when useful and warmer colors should be used where possible — Duval said the commission nailed one — the warmer lighting.

“Light should be directed only to where it's needed. This is the key point I think that we're missing in this particular lighting ordinance” draft, Duval said. “We've had conversations around timers and motion detectors and I think we're heading in the right direction there.”

Duval said without targeted lighting, light is spilling all over the place and may or may not be pushed up into the sky with the 90-degree cut-off.

“I think we can all agree that we are super close,” Yeager said, noting there is fine-toothed work to be done and he said he generally agrees with Duval.

“I'm going to push back on the one area that I think we would be doing ourselves a tremendous disservice if we eliminated and this could be partially to blame a little bit on semantics on what is architectural lighting, but this has been a body of my work doing specialty lighting in both landscapes and buildings in residential areas for many, many years,” Yeager said.

He was in favor of landscape lighting and described an image where the lights are nestled deep into bushes and shrubbery and then washes up on buildings to make the building look nice. It isn’t task lighting.

“It's not task lighting. It's not for walking. It's just made to make buildings look better,” Yeager said. He pointed to neighborhoods in Florida, the southeast and East Coast where there are no lights mounted on buildings. “They only have this soft landscape lighting washing up on the building. It just looks absolutely spectacular. The trees are lit up and to me looks real, it just looks amazing. And I would sure hate to see that controlled. You can’t do that obviously with just downlighting.”


Commission member Chuck Marohn suggested a small booklet would also be helpful to show what kind of lighting is allowed and what meets the code.

Staff will look at taking guidance from the discussion and coming back with another draft.

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

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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