By Michael Howell
The new sign ordinance proposed by the County Commissioners and approved unanimously on first reading two weeks ago went down like a mega-billboard in a hurricane last Monday in the face of overwhelming public opposition. The new ordinance would have increased the allowable size of signage along Highway 93 to 672 square feet and increased the allowable size of signage on secondary roads, including the Eastside Highway to 336 square feet.
The meeting room was packed and about 34 people all spoke against the changes and for leaving the current ordinance in place. No one spoke in favor of the changes. In a show of hands, every person in the room was in opposition to the changes and no raised a hand in support. The Commissioners’ Administrative Assistant noted that she had received 94 e-mails about the proposed ordinance up until the last weekend and that 92 were opposed to any change. Only two supported the new ordinance. She said over the weekend she received 82 more e-mails all against changing the ordinance and none in favor of the changes.
People spoke about the scenic beauty of the valley and its importance to businesses here such as the real estate and tourist related businesses. Several stated that they moved here for the natural beauty and in part to get away from the billboard infested areas they lived in. Many spoke about the danger of driver distraction and other safety issues.
Former County Commissioner Alan Thompson, who was on the commission when the current sign ordinance was passed in 2000, said that it was based on a lot of concern and a lot of study and information. He urged the sitting commissioners to listen to the public.
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Thompson. “You don’t represent Republicans or Democrats. You represent the people. Please listen to your constituents.”
In the end the commissioners got the message and a motion to approve the ordinance on second reading failed due to lack of a second.
In response to one specific question that surfaced repeatedly about why these changes were proposed in the first place, Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that he had received a couple of calls about it from small business owners on the back roads that were concerned that a sign meeting the current standard of 32 square feet and a distance of 100 feet from the road would not be effective advertising.
Burrows said, “I think we’ve got some work to do on this. We continue to get comments.” He moved to delay any decision and continue to accept comment. But that motion was not well received by the audience and eventually was withdrawn.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said, “We’ve heard some pretty strong comment. It’s not a political issue. To make it one is counter-productive. We have not heard one advocate in this room and that speaks loudly to me.” He said there were still concerns about the current ordinance, however, and asked Planning Department Manager Terry Nelson to address the issues.
Nelson stated that his office had received about half a dozen requests over the past year or so about putting up an off-premise business sign and the biggest concern was the 32 square foot size limit and the 100-foot setback limit. He said another problem with the current ordinance was that it included a sunset clause for grandfathered signs after seven years so that today, with only a half dozen permits issued, all the non-permitted signs would be illegal. He said there are concerns about enforcement because of a “takings” issue that could mean a court battle. The other thing, he said, is that under a section dealing with non-conforming signs, the current ordinance says that this does not apply to Highway 93. He said some permits have been granted on Highway 93 but “others have been told that because of that sentence that we do not deal with Highway 93.” He said application of the rule has been inconsistent. He said that he did not support the numbers in the proposed ordinance at all, but that the 32 square foot limit was not necessarily practical for roadside farm sales.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that the commission had been working on this for a year and that seven meetings had been held and they didn’t hear from anyone until after passing the first reading.
“It wasn’t that we just went out in opposition to people,” said Stoltz. “We got comments from businesses, like Commissioner Burrows said. We looked at some of the problems in the old ordinance and tried to clean them up. But nobody’s set on numbers.”
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that she was first concerned about private property rights, “but now I would like to reduce the size of signs, but I don’t think we can legally do it. I think we need to take all that we’ve heard and think about legal issues.” She said small signs work just fine. “We need to address the legal issues and decide whether we want to throw the baby out with the bath.”
After some discussion about whether to delay the decision or continue the meeting, it was agreed to make a motion to approve the ordinance on second reading. Commissioner Burrows agreed to withdraw his motion to delay the decision and take more comment and instead Commissioner Chilcott made a motion to approve the ordinance on second reading and it died due to lack of a second.