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Digital sign request in Pequot Lakes draws diverse opinions

After sharing strong and diverse opinions regarding digital signs in the city, the Pequot Lakes City Council decided Tuesday, July 1, to send the controversial issue back to the planning and zoning commission for a maximum of two months.

The commission is being advised to research digital signs that would be black only, but changeable via computer from indoors. The council does not want to allow bright, flashing, colorful digital signs in the city. Currently only gas stations in the city are allowed to have digital signs to display gas prices, a change that came several years ago.

The Pequot Lakes American Legion, Pequot Lakes School and Pequot Lakes office of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber had asked the planning commission — as they have in the past — to allow them to have digital signs. The planning commission recommended the council deny the request, partly because digital signs are in direct conflict with the city's comprehensive plan.

Like some planning commission members, some city council members didn't like that a sign ordinance amendment would allow digital signs for everyone in the Downtown Mixed Use zone.

Council member Scott Pederson, a former planning commission member, is staunchly opposed to any type of digital sign. He said they are ugly, citing neon colors like those on gas station signs as unsightly.

"Every bar, every restaurant could have a digital sign," he said, adding the city could have 100 digital signs downtown with lights of all colors. "To me this is a backward step, not a future step."

Pederson said Nisswa and Breezy Point don't have digital signs, and Pine River has just one for the school.

"We're bowing to convenience, to one or two or three, and the residents will suffer from it by having to look at bright lights," Pederson said

Council member Dave Sjoblad countered that the colors and brightness could be controlled by ordinance. He said people in town are asking for digital signs, but not necessarily bright and flashy signs.

"We're going to have to get to the present day," he said, noting it's a lot easier to type a message for a sign than to manually change a sign. And it would be easier to keep digital signs updated.

The chamber's sign in Trailside Park had outdated information last winter because the letters were frozen onto the sign.

Council member Jerry Akerson agreed with Sjoblad, saying digital signs would better identify businesses for tourists and would clean up handpainted signs.

Pederson said he's heard from hundreds of people opposed to digital signs.

Mayor Nancy Adams said residents and businesses who helped craft the city's comprehensive plan want the city to remain rural with an up north feel. That plan is a guideline for the city, and she said the city should follow it for five years, when it will be updated again with resident input.

"This is not a little change," Adams said. "This is a major, major decision that we are considering changing."

Council member Tyler Gardner agreed the council should use the comprehensive plan as a guideline, but said, "If we're going to let the comp plan do our work, we're not needed. I want to see it go back to P&Z and kick around ideas."

The council unanimously agreed to send the issue back to the planning commission. Sjoblad asked that the commission start over and not use old prejudices, saying he believed any bias had to be let go.