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Sign ordinance to get a review: Public workshop in the works

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune
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The City Council showed signs Tuesday of wanting to backtrack on an ordinance that outlaws sandwich boards and banners – a popular way to attract motorists for business owners seeking customers.

The council agreed unanimously to send the controversial South Lake Tahoe sign ordinance back to the Planning Commission, which will host a workshop for public input and then send the ordinance back to the council with a recommendation. The commission meets in council chambers on the second Thursday of the month at 3 p.m. The agenda item has not been scheduled yet.

The decade-old ordinance the city adopted through an agreement with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has received heightened attention since the city’s police department took over enforcement of it last January. Since then, 135 notices of violations have been handed out.

And the enforcement hasn’t stopped the groundswell of critics claiming the ordinance is either unfair or detrimental to attracting business.

South Lake Tahoe Police Lt. Terry Daniels informed the council that the department is working its way east to west in citing violators, but signs are only one priority among sometimes more pressing matters.

“Our priorities change every day,” he said, further denying criticisms that police-enforced code holds an agenda or bias.

The department’s first introduction to the ordinance came in the form of a green spray-painted board in front of Hoss Hoggs that announced an incoming band.

Both the police and business community got some sympathy from Councilmen Mike Weber and Hal Cole, respectively.

“I can think of better things we could be doing with our police,” Weber said.

Cole stood up for business owners contending they’re struggling to get by, saying he wouldn’t “want to own a business in town.”

Some members questioned and encouraged the TRPA to stay clear of the sign business, which has fallen under the regulatory agency’s scenic threshold requirements.

But City Attorney Catherine DiCamillo said unraveling the agreement with TRPA doesn’t come easy and may jeopardize others put into place.

The code was adopted because of a proliferation of signs many people called to complain about. Judy Finn of the planning staff reminded the council she counted 19 complaints in one day from people saying the signs are tacky and trash up the town.

“I think there’s a fine line. We don’t want the town to be trashy, but our businesses are struggling as it is,” Jeanette Riva said, while standing out in front of Sno-Flake Drive-In.

She suggested the city allow the businesses to put out signs on the weekends.

Riva said the signs help her discover what’s available in these shopping centers. Many businesses in the back have come to rely on the individual temporary signs to be recognized. Otherwise, many permanent signs placed in front of the centers have lettering too small to read, many say.

In the meantime, some business owners have found a compromise.

Rick Webster of the Electric Pencil said the sign on that shop’s truck has increased business by 50 percent in the last two months.

“We had to do something,” he said.

Joining the tattoo parlor, Sno-Flake and now Mazatlan Grill, Jim Smith of Nik-n-Willies Pizza parlor painted his business name on his truck which he parks alongside his Emerald Bay Road location.

“I think the ordinance is extremely restrictive,” Smith told the council. “I promise you that you set a date for a workshop on this and people will be here. There would be more people here today, but some people are gone.”

In other business, Weber and Councilman John Upton agreed to serve on an ad hoc subcommittee to find revenue sources to maintain improvements for the Highway 50 curb and gutter project. TRPA is awaiting a sign-on-the-dotted-line plan by the city to spend the estimated $350,000 it will take for the road’s upkeep. The city has until August to sign off on a plan.

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