Council holds off on sign decisions

The Sweet Home City Council continued a public hearing on the city’s sign ordinances and asked Community Development Director Carol Lewis to bring comparisons of two options for revising the ordinances.

The Planning Commission held a public hearing earlier this month and made no recommendation on several points in the ordinance as it passed it on to the council.

The commission has been working with staff on the codes for the past two years, Lewis said. The proposed code completely revises the current code in terminology, technology and current law, aiming to organize the sections to be easily read and implemented.

The current code was created in 1983, Lewis said. The proposed code includes many of the same elements as the current code.

The new code also attempts to maintain content neutrality regarding regulations, Lewis said. With the various court rulings that apply to sign ordinances and the First Amendment right to free speech, the code effectively regulates time, place and manner.

“Even this regulation would face strict scrutiny on any issues that could be seen as taking away a person’s right to free

speech,” she said. Staff has tried to identify items that are still not content neutral within the proposed ordinance.

The Planning Commission and staff have tried to remember that businesses need signs, signs may be expensive, the city needs to improve its appearance and laws need to be enforceable, Lewis said. It sounds simple, but it’s not.

The values and motivations behind what people want to see “are often at odds with each other,” Lewis said.

Among points of contention is the concept of a sunset clause, which would require business owners to comply with the ordinance within a set period of time. The alternative is to allow existing signs that do not comply to be designated legal non-conforming signs. Those would be allowed to remain until repaired or replaced.

In general, few if any signs would be affected by the proposed ordinance with the two options in which the council is interested, Lewis said.

“Most of our signs out there are legal options,” Lewis said. “They’re not going to change.”

The only way to force businesses to replace signs would be to reduce the size allowed for signs below current standards,

Lewis said. The sunset clause could then require the change.

The council dispensed with an option proposing to reduce maximum sizes. Rather, it has chosen to look at two more flexible options that may expand or reduce the size of signs allowed, based on different criteria, including the length of property frontage, number of properties involved and the depth of the properties. It also dispensed with an option that would be similar to the existing code while imposing limits on signs 200 feet from the property line

“I’m in favor of a sign ordinance and enforcement,” said Tom Hammons, former chair of the Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort Steering Committee, which prompted the city to look at the code.

He would like to see the businesses cut down the clutter of signage while still being able to merchandise their products, he said.

SHARE member Ken England said that regulations should be tighter, rather than looser, to avoid setting the bar at a low level to appease everyone.

“My biggest concern is enforcement,” he said

Corporate standards are designed to fit the most stringent local ordinances, England said. “Since independent business owners do not have these built-in restrictions, I believe it is incumbent upon the city to provide some degree of oversight to ensure that the existing or proposed enterprise can meet its advertising needs and maintain the aesthetic vision of the community.”

He is especially concerned about the lack of a sunset clause, he said.

“Sweet Home has many derelict signs and sign structures that present a less-than-favorable image of our community,”

England said. “To allow them to remain by ‘exempting’ them is a disservice to the community and the business owners who will have to adhere to a different standard.

“Sweet Home is a community with tremendous potential. The natural beauty of the area and the friendliness of its residents are advantages that many communities do not enjoy. Nevertheless, its prosperity will, in large measure, be determined by the aesthetics of the valley floor rather than the hills that surround it.”

Realizing the limitations placed on the council regarding content neutrality, Economic Development Director Brian Hoffman told the council that he would at least like to see the city work with landowners to remove abandoned signs.

Bill Nyara, who is SHARE president and a member of the murals committee, asked the council to protect the murals in the SHARE mural program by prohibiting signs covering the murals. The murals committee has agreements with the property owners, but a provision in the ordinance would add more teeth to enforcing the prohibition on signs covering the murals.

Lewis said the ordinance could include protections on the murals.

The two remaining options will return with a side-by-side comparison at the next council meeting, Oct. 12.

“I guess a sunset clause is supposed to fix something,” said Mayor Craig Fentiman said during council discussion. “I don’t know if it would fix anything.”

At this point, the sunset clause is probably not going to be included, he said.

One hundred square feet, the largest amount of signs allowed for businesses within 100 feet of the property line, is not large enough for larger businesses, said Fentiman, who operates a Farmers Insurance agency in town, and the two options the council is considering will help them out by providing more space.

Councilor Greg Mahler, who owns and manages Hoy’s True Value Hardware, told the council that his sign is 120 square feet and is required as part of his franchise agreement. As a franchise he also is required to put up professionally designed temporary advertising signs in his windows.

Some businesses completely cover their windows with temporary signs, Lewis said. The council may decide that some percentage of windows may be covered, and this was one of the areas that was important to SHARE.

“Some are tacky,” Mahler said. “They’re not professionally done. We get a set of feature signs, and we have to display them.”

While every convenience store in town has windows filled with temporary signs, said Councilor Scott McKee Jr., he noted that he can see light coming from inside Hoy’s.

Elsewhere, “I think it looks extremely tacky,” McKee said. Some of them are hand-painted.

“Some of them don’t bother us,” Lewis said outlining one of the difficulties in revising the ordinance. “Greg, yours doesn’t bother us.”

“Basically the problem with temporary signs is it’s visual,” Fentiman said. He suggested including temporary signs in the total amount of signage allowed on a property.

Lewis said Monday that she drove through town and took pictures. She especially focused on a single side of the 1200 block, noting that all of the signs would be compatible with the remaining options.

In other business, the council:

– Ratified a new contract with the city’s general employees. The agreement maintains the existing wage and benefit status for 2010-11. It provides for salary range adjustment in 2011-13 based on merit.

– Appointed Hailey Rice to serve as the junior representative on the Youth Advisory Council. Remaining positions include high school freshman, sophomore and at large; three junior high at large; and three at large.

– Transferred $16,500 from its general fund contingency to School District 55 to cover costs of the summer pool program.

– Approved a stop sign for the southeast corner of the intersection of 44th and Airport and for the northeast corner of 43rd and Citabria, located inside the new subdivision “The Landing,” the site of the old Langmack Airport.

– Approved an application for $1.27 million in grant funds from the Oregon Department of Transportation to construct sidewalks and bike lanes along Mountain View Road, from Long Street to Elm Street. The city will be required to provide at least 10.27 percent in matching funds.