Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Signs of our times

The discussion of the cities future sign ordinance yesterday was longer than most council meetings, but it was a good example of how governments should function. The city staff had done a lot of work trying to improve the sign ordinance but there were still some significant issues with their proposals.

San Angelo's sign ordinance has needed major work for a long time. The kindest descriptions I've heard are confusing and anti-business. It was self contradictory and inconsistent with current state law. To their credit, the city government had put a moratorium on enforcement for the last year or so while the ordinance was overhauled. After much work and some meetings with the public, staffs recommendations were officially revealed at yesterdays meeting. The bulk of the ordinance was simplified, consolidated, and brought into compliance with state law. There were three sections, though, that caused heartburn with the public and local businesses and that the council rejected.

The first bone of contention was on the sandwich-board style of signs. The staff had originally recommended that they only be allowed in the downtown area. There were a number of reasons, such as high foot traffic, zero lot lines and historical use given for allowing their use down town. There were no convincing reasons given why they shouldn't be allowed in other non-residential areas as long as they don't interfere with foot traffic and were not left out at night. It was pointed out that there are many other areas in town that already have or are trying to increase foot traffic. It was also pointed out that many businesses on Chadbourne, both north and south, have zero lot lines and could definitely make use of sandwich-board signs. The council saw no good reason to restrict them to downtown area.

Next up was the issue of the new generation of electronic signs. There are already state laws and TxDOT rules that govern some of them when they are along a state highway such as Bryant or Sherwood Way. Signs not advertising the business on the property are limited to text only animation and no flashing. There are also limits on how fast the message should change and how long it should be displayed. There are good reasons why flashing should not be allowed but no compelling reason was given for why animation should not be allowed on signs not covered by TxDOT. The possible distraction argument put forward by staff didn't have enough evidence to convince council to ban animation.

The last, and hottest, bone of contention was banners. Staff made three proposals that were universally disliked. First, they wanted a permit fee for banners. Next they wanted a 180 day per year limit on their use. Finally they wanted a 60 sq. ft. maximum on size, no matter what the size of the building or property. These proposals show a serious disconnect between planning and the business community.

Banners are a very inexpensive and flexible form of advertising. They are also very fast to produce. A banner may be free from the a manufacturer as part of a promotional deal, or it may cost as little as $50 so it doesn't make sense to spend $20 on a permit fee and another $20 or so dollars on gas and man hours to get the permit. If a business wants to use banners for weekly or monthly sales or promotions, the fees add up pretty fast. Of course, if the business wants to do promotions using banners they run smack dab into the staffs recommended time limits.

It seems that staff has a very narrow view of how banners should be used by businesses. They seem to think banners are okay for promoting a small number of special events, but most of the time businesses should be banner free. They don't seem to have heard of all the different uses banners can be put to. Then again, it might be their idea of aesthetics.

Staff recommended a flat 60 sq. ft. limit on banners, instead of the current 25% of wall space. This number was seen as unrealistic and arbitrary. On a large building or one set back a distance from the road, such a limit makes a banner useless. A business on a corner would be at a disadvantage, as the 60 sq ft would have to be divided up between the two sides facing the streets. They also wanted the requirement that it had to be attached to a building when all that is really needed is attachment to a stable structure. As was pointed out by one of the businesses an RV can be a stable structure.

In the end, council concluded that the biggest problem with banners, and signs in general was maintenance and serviceability. Banners should not be allowed to used when tattered and torn, but that should apply to any sign. There are signs that are eyesores in our city of all different types. There has been an enforcement moratorium so this should be expected, but it does show where the enforcement effort needs to focus.

Next council meeting, we will get to see how well councils direction is followed by staff. Philosophically, I agree with Councilman Morrison that we don't really need a sign ordinance beyond what is already in state law. Odessa seems to be doing fine without one. Realistically, what council told staff to bring back will be the least restrictive sign ordinance around and is probably the best we can get. The result is good but I have some problems with how we got here.

First off, public involvement was not what it should have been. They had a chart that showed a number of meetings on this issue, most with remarkably low turnout. This indicates there is a problem with how the meeting notifications were carried out. Granted, these meetings were not subject to the open meetings act, and there was no requirement for 72 hour posting etc., but many of the people I talked to after the discussion complained of short or no notice. Some even thought it might have been an attempt by staff to limit public input. I seriously doubt that was the case, but the perception is there and will linger a while.

Next, I was a bit disappointed that some bureaucratic slight of hand was used to make the banner restrictions look not quite so bad. For example, if you take a flimsy banner and attaches it to a frame (most likely of flimsy, fragile wood), it is no longer a banner and is now a permanent sign which requires no permit (although it now falls under other restrictions.) Or take your banner, turn it vertical and attach it top and bottom to a light pole and instantly it is no longer a banner and needs no permit. Attach to a pole at one end and it might just be a flag. Ignore the fact that all the objections to banners still apply, it has been magically transformed into something else. For some reason, this made staffs case weaker.

Staff further attempted to strengthen their case by stating that tighter regulations would be good for economic development. I have been looking at studies on economic development, especially with respect to small business for years and have never found a case where restrictive sign ordinances helped business. On the contrary, there are many studies showing overly restrictive ordinances hamper the growth of small businesses. You know, those businesses that provide the bulk of our jobs and economic growth.

My last point is that contrary to what staff may believe, this is not a question of council preferring commerce over aesthetics. It is very much a case of council deciding where to draw the line on governments interference in aesthetics. Councilman Morrison and others, including myself stated that the government should not be dictating aesthetics. Mr. Lewis rightly pointed out that the city already regulates litter, junk, etc. and that dictates aesthetics. We should have been clearer: Governments should NOT dictate aesthetics for aesthetics sake. The regulations he mentioned all have other goals such as public health. He also said it's a quality of life issue. Council decided that the citizens and businesses of this town should get to decide what they consider quality of life. In the end, the council decided that once basic safety and housekeeping is done, the citizens and businesses of San Angelo should be making the decisions on aesthetics and quality of life, not bureaucrats. To my way of thinking, that's how government should work.

No comments:

Post a Comment