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Planning commission seeks middle ground on Brainerd lighting ordinance

A new proposal would regulate outdoor light poles heights by zone, with different standards for residential, business and industrial districts.

Thrifty White lights.jpg
Light poles 13 feet high illuminate the parking lot at Thrifty White Pharmacy on Washington Street in Brainerd. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Parties previously at odds over proposed changes to Brainerd’s outdoor lighting ordinance seem to be coming together, though work still remains on a final solution.

Community Development Director David Chanski gave a rundown of new amendments at the planning commission’s meeting Wednesday, Nov. 20 — changes commissioners came up with during a workshop last week.

In September, the city council struck down amendments from the planning commission that would limit all outdoor light poles to a maximum of 13 feet, or 20 feet with a conditional use permit. As the ordinance stands, streetlights can be up to 30 feet tall.

Commission members said the proposal resulted from an attempt to impose stricter lighting standards on a number of conditional use permit applications over the past couple years. Specifically, applications from Thrifty White Pharmacy, Harrison Elementary School and Brainerd High School drew concern from the planning commission, which wanted to inhibit the amount of light pollution in those neighborhoods. Thrifty White and Harrison eventually agreed to the condition of 13-foot light poles for their properties, while school district administrators appealed to the city council regarding lighting for the proposed parking lot east of BHS. The council agreed to allow light poles up to 23 feet at the high school.

A quorum of council members struck down the original proposed amendment after hearing from four community members opposed to the measure.

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Representatives from the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Brainerd Public Schools and Brainerd Public Utilities cited concerns about shorter lights lending themselves to more vandalism, creating the need for a higher quantity — and therefore higher cost — of lights, and the fact semitrailers are larger than 13 feet and would obstruct lights in some places, possibly creating dark shadows and vehicle damage. They also felt the ordinance would be too restrictive and felt it was a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Council members were swayed by the comments — which community members also brought forward during a planning commission public hearing in October — and did not take action on the planning commission’s proposal, but commission members continued working on a solution to satisfy all parties.

Changes coming out of last week’s workshop include the following size regulations based on zones:

  • Residential, residential office and neighborhood business districts: Maximum 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: maximum of 15 feet, with a possible allowance of 25 feet in certain circumstances.

  • Industrial districts: 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, the light source mounted on a structure would not exceed the height of the structure.
The proposed ordinance also mandates lights in parking lots and at outdoor athletic facilities be shut off within an hour of final activity.

“The idea with the final activity language is that it’s not locking in a certain time. And so if an athletic facility is being used, for example, for a special event and it’s later at night, the lights can be used. If it’s not being used, then the idea of the lights being shut off,” Chanski said, noting restaurants and bars that close late at night can consider their “final activity” the time when all their staff members have left, to allow lights to remain on for staff safety. Businesses that operate 24 hours, like Cub Foods, would always be allowed to have lights on, as activity never ends.

He noted commissioners felt 13 feet in residential areas felt reasonable. They added the possibility of an increase to 20 feet, he said, if there are concerns about trucks or larger vehicles in the area.

Chanski said he feels these amendments make the ordinance more flexible, like community members previously asked for.

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During a public hearing Wednesday night, Reid Thiesse, building and grounds director for the school district, said he likes the changes for the most part but still worried about BHS, as it is mostly in a residential district and would fall under the most restrictive regulations. He said it’s hard to define what constitutes one hour after final activity, as football players may take more than an hour to get to the locker rooms, shower and change after a game ends.

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The elementary schools, which also lie in residential districts, could likely function under the proposed changes, as they don’t tend to have as many late-night after school activities.

Superintendent Laine Larson added it’s hard to know when final activity may be when buses coming home from away games might not always get back when they plan, especially if a game is postponed or road conditions are hazardous in the winter. Sometimes buses can get back as late as 1 or 2 a.m. Thiesse and Larson said even those times could change, making it impossible to set the lights on an automatic system to turn off an hour after “final activity.”

Larson also said she worried about shutting parking lights off completely at any time for safety reasons. She mentioned what she called “a major safety concern” from February when a high school teacher was attacked in a BHS locker room before school one morning. The assailant entered the building through an unlocked exterior door about 6 a.m., prompting the district to amend its policy on when doors are locked.

“How are we going to ensure the safety of our students and our staff within the school if there aren’t lights around?” Larson asked commissioners. “To me, the purpose of lights is to provide safety and security for everyone, and I get really concerned if we’re going to go full black.”

Larson then spoke about the new performing arts center being built onto the high school, which will eventually host functions on school property that aren’t necessarily associated with the school. She said the district will likely have little or no say in how late events may go on there.

Like the 24-hour Cub Foods, Larson said maybe BHS is an outlier that might need different regulations than other facilities.

Council member and commission liaison Jan Lambert asked Larson if she would feel better if parking lot lights were dimmed to 50-75% brightness after certain hours, and Larson said she’d be a lot happier with that arrangement.

Tim Ramerth of Widseth Smith Nolting then spoke on behalf of both the school district and the chamber of commerce’s government affairs committee. He thanked the commission for continuing to work on the ordinance but noted some of the same concerns Larson and Thiesse mentioned.

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From a business standpoint, Ramerth said he thinks it would be a hard sell to tell businesses their parking lot lights have to be turned off completely after hours, as lights are there to reduce crime and vandalism and promote safety. A 50% reduction, though, he said, would be more realistic.

After the public hearing, commissioner Theresa Woodward noted the 60 minutes after final activity regulation applies only to spaces used specifically as parking lots and not to security lights in areas that are an extension of a business — like car dealerships or lumber yards.

She then suggested having a child safety clause in the ordinance, exempting schools and child care facilities from the final activity regulation and allowing them to maintain their lighting at their discretion and trusting they would, in good faith, turn off or reduce parking lot lighting in residential areas when it’s not needed.

Commission Chair Don Gorham clarified streetlights and some building lights never get turned off, meaning very few areas would likely be completely dark in the absence of parking lot lights.

Commissioner Chris Foley noted “final activity” is loose language, while commissioner Justin Burslie agreed some sort of special provisions for schools would be a good idea.

The commission ultimately advised Chanski to take the comments and suggestions into account and revise the ordinance accordingly before sending it to the city council. The ordinance will likely come back before the commission in December.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.
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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