NORTH MANKATO — The city of North Mankato is loosening its restrictions against dynamic signs in neighborhoods following a legal challenge to a recent variance decision. Critics welcome the effort but say the change could invite even more issues for North Mankato residents.
The North Mankato City Council approved the changes 3-2 Monday night, with Council members Sandra Oachs and Billy Steiner dissenting. The sign ordinance changes came in response to a resident’s lawsuit surrounding the council’s previous decision to allow Holy Rosary Catholic Church to put up a dynamic sign.
North Mankato resident Barb Church contended the city didn’t follow local and state laws when it approved a variance for Holy Rosary. She filed a lawsuit in June asking the city to rescind the variance and review its procedures.
The new city sign rule closely follows stipulations the council put on Holy Rosary’s variance.
A dynamic sign in a residential area can only display messages during daylight hours. It must be shut off one hour after sunset and can’t start up until an hour before sunrise. It can’t changes messages faster than once every three hours. And it can’t burn brighter than 6,000 nits, about as bright as a high-end TV display.
The new rules also restrict dynamic signs in neighborhoods to those put up by the city, local churches or schools. All entities that want a dynamic sign must first get a city permit.
“It makes us consistent with what signage is now,” North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said. “We put restrictions on it to be respectful of the residential area so I think that’s in keeping with the needs of the citizens and the respect of the neighborhoods.”
Holy Rosary asked the city for a variance earlier this year as part of a larger renovation to the front of its building, which was built in 1950.
Nearby residents raised concerns at the time, saying a brightly lit sign would cause issues in the neighborhood. Several wrote letters of opposition to the city regarding Holy Rosary’s request.
Church told the council Monday night she was concerned the ordinance change didn’t do enough to protect residents. She pointed out the existing ordinance would allow for a 50-square-foot dynamic sign in residential areas and there wasn’t clear guidance over flashing or blinking signs.
Church also took issue with dynamic signs in general. While the new ordinance only allows dynamic signs in residential areas for “non-commercial institutional uses,” Church argues a dynamic sign is by its nature used for advertisements.
“The question should be asked, ‘Does this kind of sign really belong in a residential area?’” she said.
Other residents agreed. Stefanie Jaquette told the council she opposed the ordinance in part because it could affect residents who could have health risks looking at flashing signs or residents with special needs who couldn’t handle the bright lighting.
Lynn Solo, who lives near Holy Rosary, told the council she was concerned dynamic signs would cause traffic issues as drivers could be drawn to them.
City Administrator John Harrenstein said the council could review and amend the ordinance to address flashing or blinking at a later date if signs become a problem. Harrenstein also said he thought the council’s rule preventing sign changes more than every three hours was restrictive — he proposed changing signs no more than once an hour.
Oachs said after the meeting she voted against the ordinance because of residents’ opposition.
“I think there were some things we could have improved upon,” she said, though she also noted she was pleased local groups had to get a city permit before they could install a dynamic sign.
Steiner said he had heard concerns from several residents over the ordinance changes.
“I just think by its very nature it could be obtrusive to neighborhoods,” he said.
Council member Jim Whitlock, who supported the ordinance, said similar concerns were brought up when PJ’s Liquor got a dynamic sign on Belgrade Avenue several years ago.
While he was concerned at first, Whitlock said he and his wife “hardly notice it any more,” though they appreciate when the sign flashes the time and temperature.