Tahoe leaders not happy with sign ordinance
April 10, 2009
A South Lake Tahoe controversial sign ordinance will get a closer look in the coming months, following a decision by the City Council on Tuesday.
The council directed City Attorney Catherine DiCamillo to arrange a meeting with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency representatives to discuss how the planning agency’s code could be changed to limit regulation of signs in certain areas of the city.
The council also voted to extend a May 17 deadline for all signs in the city to comply with the complex ordinance for about six months while city staff develop ways to encourage business owners to get their signs up to code.
The council will review the effectiveness of those efforts in December before deciding what to do next.
Betty “B” Gorman, the president of the Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce, lauded the council for reviewing the sign ordinance during a time when the U.S. is in the depths of a recession and many local businesses are struggling to make ends meet.
“We are pleased to see them willing to take a pro-business approach in looking at this issue,” Gorman said, adding very few businesses in town can afford to redo their signs to comply with the ordinance.
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The ordinance regulates just about every aspect of commercial signs in the city ” including color, height, size, type and placement.
The ordinance states its intent is “to improve the visual quality” of South Lake Tahoe, but the regulation has caused frustration among some local business owners.
Complaints about the ordinance have included that it doesn’t allow businesses to effectively advertise and that it’s prohibitively expensive for most small businesses to come into compliance.
The cost for an average business to completely replace its signs can run more than $10,000 said Yan Campbell, owner of Dollar Signs and Graphics in South Lake Tahoe.
“I think it’s ridiculous they expect anyone to spend $2,000 to $10,000 to make their signs less visible,” Campbell said.
How to enforce the sign ordinance is also a problem.
“We have heard that the business community is skeptical that there will be any enforcement, so they are reluctant to spend the time and money on their own signs if their competitors are not required to do the same,” city Planning Manager Hilary Hodges said in a March 27 report.
Temporary signs that are out of compliance are removed by city community service officers following a complaint.
But there is no enforcement of the ordinance when it comes to permanent signs, Hodges told the council.
The city has received about 130 complaints regarding permanent signs, but planning staff does not have the resources to follow up on those complaints, Hodges said.
Following the council’s action on Tuesday, the city plans to give incentives to business owners for bringing their sings into compliance.
Details of the incentives aren’t fully known, but could include a reduction in permit fees, council recognition and free advertising, Hodges said.
Greater enforcement measures could follow the incentive program depending on the effectiveness of the program, Hodges told the council.
Because every illegal sign doesn’t not generate a complaint, the current enforcement methods have led to allegations of “cherry-picking,” said Councilman Bill Crawford.
Although Crawford said he wondered if the issues surrounding the sign ordinance were “overblown,” several council members were critical of the ordinance during Tuesday’s discussion.
“This sign issue never seems to die,” said Councilman Bruce Grego, noting his opposition to the ordinance.
Grego said the city should do something to help businesses in regard to the sign ordinance, but acknowledged there needs to be some standards for signs in the city.
Councilwoman Kathay Lovell expressed a similar view.
“We have something, but it’s not working ” it’s clearly not working,” Lovell said.
Councilman Hal Cole called signs the “life blood” of many businesses in town ” especially those set back from Highway 50.
Cole also said he was uncomfortable with the TRPA putting additional sign restrictions on Highway 50 because of its scenic corridor designation.
The councilman also said he had a problem with the city’s dependence on the TRPA code for its own sign ordinance.
Although the city’s ordinance is different from the TRPA’s, the planning agency requires the city’s sign regulations to be “equal or superior” to its own.
It’s unclear how many businesses have signs that don’t meet the requirements of the city’s sign ordinance, but a 2007 analysis of 1,900 businesses in South Lake Tahoe gives some indication of the extent of the issue.
“Some were home occupations or businesses that do not have signage, but the majority are likely businesses that have signs and maybe half of this are likely non-conforming in some aspect,” Hodges said in her report.
Just how to bring those signs into compliance remains unknown.
Mayor Jerry Birdwell said he hoped something could be done to give the ordinance “teeth” and get the issue resolved permanently.
“We need to get something done,” Birdwell said. “This has gone on entirely too long as far as I’m concerned.”