May 2, 2009 in City, News

Council to debate revised sign ordinance

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: City signs
Colin Mulvany photo

Under the proposed city sign ordinance, changing image signs like this one at Northwest Boulevard and Indiana Avenue would be allowed to stay as long as images don’t change faster than once a second. They probably would have been banned under the original draft.
(Full-size photo)

Bus benches Besides extensive changes in the city’s main sign regulations, the Spokane City Council on Monday also will consider an ordinance that would allow advertising on bus benches. Councilman Al French proposed the change in response to Mayor Mary Verner’s decision to enforce a 2001 sign rule that city officials say bans advertising on bus benches.

Many Spokane business owners were outraged by the City Council’s attempt to adopt new sign rules two months ago, and their reaction has paid off.

Council members will resume discussion of sign rules next week, and they’ll focus on a significantly less-restrictive proposal.

After dozens of people testified against the changes, the council delayed a vote. On Monday, the council voted to substitute a version rewritten by planning staff in consultation with Council President Joe Shogan.

The city originally planned to restrict digital signs from changing more than once a day. The revised proposal would allow images to change every second, and moving video would be allowed on 10 square feet of electronic message boards.

Also, downtown signs along Interstate 90 could be 60 feet tall, as opposed to the original proposal of 25 feet.

Signs along North Division Street, now unregulated, could be 35 feet tall with an area of 250 square feet. The first plan considered by the council limited height to 25 feet and area to 200 square feet.

The previous concept would have banned signs on rooftops; the revised ordinance doesn’t.

Residents holding garage sales or Realtors hosting open houses would be allowed to post 10 signs advertising the event – seven more than originally considered.

“The proposed changes are a better starting point,” said Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. “Now it’s time to take more testimony and see what concerns there are.”

Even with the changes, concerns remain on both sides.

Suzanne Markham, president of Citizens for a Scenic Spokane, says the less rigorous version will promote the creation of a Spokane that looks “like Las Vegas.”

“We have just opened the barn door and let the cows out,” she said. “We have missed an opportunity to reclaim the skyline.”

Mike Schuler, co-owner of Crown Sign Service in Spokane, argues that the proposal would create standards that hurt business. He’s particularly concerned about limiting the square footage of digital signs to 48 square feet, an amount he describes as “a postage stamp.”

“The passer-by doesn’t have the right to tell the property owner what he can or can’t do with his property,” Schuler said.

The council voted 5-1 on Monday to substitute the newer version. Councilman Richard Rush opposed the substitution. Councilman Steve Corker abstained, saying he felt uncomfortable casting a vote before public comment on the changes.

“We made significant amendments and didn’t allow public testimony,” Corker said. “It sets a precedent that I don’t feel comfortable about.”

But Shogan said the public will be able to comment Monday and that the ordinance is by no means done.

“I’m just trying to get the proposal to the point where we can get some final action,” he said.

Most council members said this week they were uncomfortable with the previous proposal that limited changing the message on digital signs to once a day.

“We were virtually going to make time and temperature illegal,” said Councilman Bob Apple, who added that he supports of most of the changes.

Officials say the restrictions on digital signs are aimed at improving driver safety and aesthetics.

“That’s really the purpose of some limitations on the amount of flashing and changing that can be done. … It’s distracting to cars and just draws your attention from driving your vehicle,” said Ken Pelton, senior city planner.

Some argue that shortening the allowed change to once a second goes too far.

“In my book, that is still a flashing sign,” Markham said. “The concerns of being able to change your message should not be to the detriment of traffic safety and community aesthetics.”

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said a one-second restriction “is pretty much a blinking sign,” and Councilman Mike Allen said he leans in favor of requiring message lengths of at least “three or four seconds.”

Schuler said evidence is scant that digital signs threaten safety. If anything, restricting the size of electronic message boards would be more distracting because drivers would strain to read them, he said.

He added that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

“They look a lot better than the old-fashioned letter signs that you change by hand,” Schuler said.

The proposal to allow signs up to 60 feet tall on the north side of I-90, along Third Avenue downtown, also has generated controversy.

“It’s appropriate to consider that our freeway is elevated,” McLaughlin said.

But Rush said tall signs don’t fit with a cityscape that “attracts people to the city rather than looking like a cheap commercial strip.”

Planning Director Leroy Eadie noted the lack of height limits along Third Avenue downtown, with several signs, including ones for Banner Bank, Carl’s Jr. and Domino’s, closer to 70 feet.

At least one sign, which announces “Buffet” for a closed restaurant, is about 80 feet, he said. Those signs would be grandfathered, but no new signs that high would be allowed.

Verner said she needs to study the new version before making up her mind.

“The council members are trying to find that balance between an aesthetically pleasing community and avoiding visual clutter but also being able to provide reasonable advertising opportunities,” she said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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