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Remedy the blight on Portlands skyline

My View • City must take a hard look at illegal signs that dot the landscape
by: L.E. BASKOW Lynn Hanrahan, co-owner of the Mirador Community Store, was forced to cover half of a mural on her building's wall between July 2004 and October 2009 so the mural wouldn't violate city regulations. Community murals are protected in Portland, but a My View writer believes the lack of enforcement has allowed other types of signs to be displayed illegally.

For anyone driving about the heart of Portland, the expansion and proliferation of enormous signs is impossible to ignore. This visual onslaught is most apparent along our interstate highways and primary streets, and at the Willamette River bridgeheads.

In recent times, large painted wall signs appeared. Then they were enlarged. Then they were replaced by vinyl sheets and high-powered lighting. Then these vinyl signs expanded further. They've been placed not where most fitting, but where the highest visibility and traffic counts yield the greatest revenue.

Most of these signs have been erected and managed by sophisticated companies. Were these expansions undertaken with proper approvals, they might be considered undesirable by some, but not reprehensible. However, this is not the case.

A number of these sign locations were enabled at a smaller size as a result of a mid-1990s legal attack on the city by certain sign companies. They exploited a state constitutional infirmity in the city's sign code that was originally emplaced to allow community murals and limit other types of large signs. During this period, sign companies combed major traffic streets, establishing potential rights by placing elements such as roses and butterflies on building walls throughout the city.

Ultimately, the courts allowed the sign entities the rights to signs at the size requested prior to litigation or otherwise established (such as the roses and butterflies), while empowering the city to continue to regulate changes to the signs and restrict future requests. Additional signs, and the expansion and change in technology of these others, have all occurred since without approvals, and with impunity.

Building billboards

The city of Portland has limited enforcement capacity in these economically and staff-challenged times. These companies - with full knowledge of the regulations applicable to their industry - have chosen to take advantage of the city's limited resources in order to further illegally expand their sign programs and increase their revenue. In doing so, they are taking advantage of all of us.

The outdoor advertising industry prefers vinyl signs to paint. The vinyl is cheaper than hand-crafted paint. Once the system is up, the vinyl signs can be changed out more readily, thus allowing more cycling of new advertisers. It thereby renders the building into less of a canvas, and more of a conventional billboard.

Other implications of this are that the vinyl signs, in addition to being shinier and brighter than painted signs and thus more distracting from the building, are also competing more aggressively with other forms of advertising. The types and forms of message on these signs tend to be busier and flashier, simply borrowed and scaled-up from print advertising. The painted signs, because of their higher investment and lifespan, have typically been composed in a manner with more 'stylistic permanence.'

Many of these building-encompassing signs are on historic landmark buildings. The new technology - attached banner-type vinyl signs tied to a cable system - requires drilling into these structures. In the case of historic buildings; they're typically brick. The material is fragile, and the systems are not applied with specific concern to minimizing damage to the brick and mortar. Potentially irreparable harm is resulting to these most cherished and protected structures.

Furthermore, unlike painted signs that were historically applied to such buildings in the past, the vinyl signs completely obscure the pattern of material and changes to these buildings over time (such as old bricked in openings), which tell some of the buildings' 'story.'

Sweeping violations

The city of Portland has enforcement and fining authority. They have used this authority in the past. However, this has been on a case-by-case basis. The reason for this is simple. Enforcement of sign and zoning regulations is anonymously complaint-driven. This is appropriate. The city has never had the resources to proactively pursue potential compliance issues comprehensively and equitably.

The good news is that - following changes to the sign code in response to the earlier litigation - there was undertaken a complete photographic inventory of all signs in Portland. This survey can now provide a clear baseline for determining which of these new, modified and/or expanded signs are legal and which are not.

There has never before been this kind of sweeping, obvious, institutional violation of city codes. I implore the citizens and enjoyers of Portland who find objectionable this visual assault on our world-renowned urban environment to register complaints about these disruptive encroachments on the city skyline with City Council members and Portland's Bureau of Development Services.

Armed with enough complaints, the City Council might then have the citizen mandate necessary to begin enforcement actions, assign fines and ultimately remove or minimize these illegal signs.

Given the impressive income stream of these signs, many companies would likely continue their activities and absorb the cost of fines for some period, thus costing the city little or nothing (or better still, adding revenue to diminishing reserves) while turning about this unfortunate trend.

Jeff Joslin is a planning and development consultant, and a former land-use manager for the city of Portland.