By Michael Howell
A public hearing was held on November 14 to gather public comment on a proposed sign ordinance for the Town of Stevensville. The possible adoption of the ordinance was also placed on the agenda for the council meeting that immediately followed the public hearing. After hearing critics and supporters of the proposal at the hearing, the council decided at the council meeting to send the ordinance back to the Planning and Zoning Committee for review and further recommendations.
The Stevensville Planning and Zoning Committee worked with the Stevensville Main Street Design Committee for several months researching the issue and examining other ordinances in use in other municipalities in fashioning the proposed ordinance. But some businesses, nonetheless, felt excluded from the process and showed up to voice some serious concerns.
Chris Kennedy, owner of the New Coffee Mill, said he was opposed to the big flashy digital signs that the ordinance would restrict but said he could not agree with the restriction in size being placed on signage in general. He raised several questions about how the proposed limitation in size to 10 percent of the total frontage space of the building would be interpreted and applied. Did it include window space? What about signs in or on the window? Do they count? Did the requirement to get a permit for placing a new sign include sale signs placed in the window?
Albert Barnett of the Bitterroot Thrift Store was also concerned about the size limitations. He thought the minimum size should be doubled at least. He noted that the trees planted along Main Street already blocked visibility of some businesses requiring bigger signs than normal just to be seen at all.
Debbie Ramsey of Winky’s Café claimed that their business increased by about 30 percent following the installation of a new projecting sign that would not meet the proposed size limitation of no more than 10 square feet projecting no more than 3 feet from the building.
Robert Morawic of Montana Bob’s expressed adamant opposition. He called it a “takings” and questioned the justification of it. He also raised the issue of how it would be applied, especially to his own business which includes antique signs as a kind of merchandise. He wondered, for instance, if he would be required to get a permit just to display one of the signs that he has for sale.
Morawic also wondered about how the process would be instituted, what the application forms would be like, what information they would require, whether there would be a fee associated with it and how much, as well as who would issue, inspect and enforce the ordinance. He specifically objected to the notion of having the Main Street Association design committee approve any murals placed on building fronts.
“Private organizations and unelected volunteers should never have a greater say over what I do with my property than I do,” said Morawic.
Mel Cook, a member of the Planning and Zoning Committee, defended the work done on the ordinance and the motivations behind it. He cautioned current business owners that without a sign ordinance a new business could move in next door and put up a sign so big that it would block their business from view.
Not all business owners expressed opposition. In fact, Janet Gronbach of Red Willow said that she believed the committee was truly trying to do something that would help the current local business owners in the long run. She assured other business owners present that the committee was not interested in hurting anybody’s business but in helping them out. She said a workable sign ordinance could preserve and enhance business opportunities for everybody.
Cinda Holt, who serves on the Main Street Association’s Design Committee, echoed those sentiments and said preserving the historical character of the downtown would benefit all the businesses on Main Street.
Main Street Association Board member Victoria Howell agreed. She said many of the concerns being expressed were valid and that the proposal should certainly be reconsidered, but some issues, like the possibility of restricting lighted digital signs that could ruin the historical character of the downtown, were important to pursue.
Committee member, artist and designer Marina Weatherly agreed, saying that it was worth the effort to try and avoid the “big town, big box, strip mall look” and preserve the historical character of the downtown.
Ben Longbottom, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Committee, acknowledged that the current proposal needed to be revised and clarified on a number of issues and assured those present that if the ordinance was sent back to committee that everyone present who signed the attendance sheet would get a letter from the committee alerting them to any meeting so that they could attend or submit recommended changes.