New changes in store for South Lake Tahoe signs |

New changes in store for South Lake Tahoe signs

Jack Barnwell
Signs like the one marking Tahoe Trout Farm, located on the American Legion property on Highway 50, violate the City of South Lake Tahoe's ordinance. Off-site signs aren't permitted, but could be replaced by directional signs bearing images like a fish.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — All signs are pointing toward modifications in South Lake Tahoe’s complex display ordinance.

At the center of the debate is whether revised sign ordinances fall in line with goals to improve portions of the Highway 50 and 89 corridors as part of the “Fixin’ 50” initiative.

An example highlighting the issue is Tahoe Trout Farm’s seasonal sign located on the American Legion Post 795’s property at Lake Tahoe Boulevard and Blue Lake Avenue. It directs people to the farm, which is found on Blue Lake Avenue.

The city recently ordered farm owner Jim Vallier to remove the sign. Off-site signs violate South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) regulations because it might add clutter and distract drivers.

“I’m all for fixing up Highway 50,” Vallier said at a Sept. 10 planning commission meeting. “I don’t even like my sign, but it helps direct people to my business.”

Vallier applied for a historical exemption to maintain his sign’s location, but the city lacks that provision in its code.

South Lake Tahoe development director Shawna Brekke-Read said that adding historical signs to city code requires an environmental study under California and TRPA environmental regulations.

For businesses like Tahoe Trout Farm, Brekke-Read said the city could compromise by installing directional signs if it falls under the “locally unique” category. Signs can’t bear any commercial language, like Tahoe Trout Farm, however. A sign directing people to Tahoe Trout Farm, for example, might have a fish on it. The change to the sign ordinance would require city council and TRPA approval.

Vallier said the compromise on signage should work and provide a cleaner aesthetic for signage on the scenic corridor.

Other business owners, like John Runnels of Runnels Automotive, see “Fixin’ 50” goals, like sign limitations, as too restrictive.

“You ask a lot of business people in the city and they say they don’t do anything to support business,” Runnels said.

Runnels and the city engaged in a long-running dispute over vintage cars stored on his lot. Runnels removed the vehicles on Sept. 8, a month after an El Dorado County judge ruled they were unregistered and could not be stored on the lot per California and South Lake Tahoe codes.

According to Runnels, most of South Lake Tahoe, especially along the Highway 50 and Highway 89 corridors, offer their own unique characteristics.

“The city wants to destroy that unique characteristic and corporatize it and make the area look like downtown San Jose,” Runnels said.


South Lake Tahoe’s sign ordinance is flexible, but complex, according to development services deputy director Hillary Roverud. A sign permit application currently takes eight hours to process, and it’s based on building size and retail frontage space.

Past “Fixin’ 50” improvements include the Harrison Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project done in 2014, which transformed the frontage road. Pavement, curbs, gutters, directional signs, bicycling and pedestrian improvements enhanced the look and feel of the business area.

Some commercial areas, like the Tourist Core Area, have their own guidelines under individual area plans.

New guidelines, once approved by the city council and TRPA governing board, could allow businesses to be processed under TRPA guidelines, which are considered more straightforward than other regulatory codes.

“It would cut down on time it takes city staff to review permits,” Roverud said, where eight hours of work could become one hour.

South Lake Tahoe’s revisions require that all new signs and modified signs receive a permit.

“Sign design standards encourage the innovative use of design and promote renovation and proper maintenance,” according to the city summary.

Businesses are allowed to have freestanding and building signs based primarily on the business’ square footage, vehicle speed limit, sign height, setback measurements, and the angle of the sign to the street.

Signs that don’t require permitting include sandwich boards, temporary signs and signs tacked on to the sides buildings. Sandwich-board signs are allowed from Friday night to Sunday night.

“Locally unique” signs might include creative and unique design or constructive techniques or is a widely recognizable icon or landmark within the city.

For more information on South Lake Tahoe’s sign ordinance, visit

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