Sign language

City adopts new rules for visual displays
by: Marcus Hathcock, Electronic readerboards, such as this one at Suburban Auto Group, would be limited to public buildings if the council passes the sign code revisions.

The city's sign code spells out a lot of things - how many signs you can post to advertise a rental, the accepted length of a promotional windsock, what can go on an 'A-frame sign' and how long seasonal decorations can be displayed, among many other provisions.

But it hasn't addressed electronic readerboards - which advertise products and community events using computer-controlled LED lights - until now.

The Sandy City Council on Monday, March 17, passed the first reading of a resolution to eliminate some of the minutia of the sign code while addressing readerboards, temporary signs and some other new issues.

That was the end result of a process that began last August.

'The thing that drove this initially was readerboards,' City Manager Scott Lazenby said. 'It was ambiguous in our code whether they were even allowed, and we were getting applications for those.'

While the council and its designated citizen/staff committee were delving into the sign code, city attorneys urged officials to bring those rules into accordance with federal court rulings that prohibit government from regulating signs based on content.

'Before, we had separate categories for a lot of different kinds of signs,' Lazenby said. 'It was a little complicated, but we had those categories because people had different levels of tolerance for different kinds of signs. It did take some major revision' to change the code.

Now, instead of regulating real estate signs, grand opening signs and signs advertising gas prices, the city would stipulate how many signs can go up, and how big they can be.

Just in time for election season, the new rules allow citizens to legally dedicate their yard to promoting candidates or measures - or basically anything else, since the sign code is content neutral - for a given amount of time.

'Now there are a variety of types of temporary signs allowed,' Lazenby said. 'People have the flexibility to decide what to do with their sign budget. It's simpler. We hope this will limit the proliferation of cheap signs.'

Sandy residents will be able to put an unlimited number of 'temporary signs' per lot in residential zones no earlier than 45 days before an election. They have to be removed within five days following the election.

Such signs - which could be no larger than 6 square feet - would be limited to the residential zones only. Each home may also have one 16 square foot sign.

Cutting down on readerboards

Electronic readerboards - the issue that got the sign code changes started in the first place - would be limited to public buildings from now on.

'I think there was just a concern that they get cheaper and more widely available, that they would affect the appearance of the city,' Lazenby said.

Such signs, which typically broadcast information about products and community events using LED lights, currently exist at Suburban Auto Group (in conjunction with the city of Sandy), Fred's RV World, the time and temperature sign atop Clackamas County Bank, and the Shuler Building. The new Walgreens project will have one as well, and Mt. Hood Athletic Club has applied for a permit to install one.

Those readerboards, and any future ones installed at public buildings, can't have flashing, scrolling or any kind of movement; lines of text may change every 30 seconds (or 3 seconds for smaller signs).

'The main thing is to avoid a kind of flashing effect,' Lazenby said. 'Every 30 seconds, people driving by won't see any change. From a driver safety standpoint, it's probably a good thing.'

Councilor David Nelson cast the dissenting vote on the sign code changes due to the electronic readerboard limitations. He indicated that he didn't want to prevent future businesses from using that kind of technology.

Manually changeable readerboards - such as those at the Tollgate Inn, The Crossing Restaurant and the Sandy Public Library - would be allowed in the commercial and industrial zones, providing that they take up no more than 80 percent of the total sign area, or 42 square feet (whichever is smaller).

Under previous 'sign code' rules, advertisements left on doors - such as posters, pamphlets, booklets, letters or door hangers - were banned, but the council approved language that legalized them.

The impetus for that change was admittedly self-serving for the city, Lazenby said. SandyNet, the city's Internet utility, wanted to let residents in a particular area know, using door hangers, that wireless Internet service was available in their neighborhood. They quickly learned they couldn't, due to the sign code.

Despite the city's rules, door hangers and other handbills show up on local doors from time to time.

'You get them anyway,' Lazenby said, 'but it's not that huge a problem. It's a pretty expensive form of advertising unless you have a volunteer group.'

Mayor Linda Malone agreed that door hangers weren't enough of a problem to keep them banned.

'I don't think we should prohibit door hangers,' she said. 'If people don't like it, throw it in the recycling bin.'

Next steps

Although the new rules are set to take effect in early May - if councilors pass the second reading next month - city officials and business owners agree that the sign code stands to face further revision in the coming months and years.

'The final recommendation from the committee … was to look at design standards for permanent signs, to make them be consistent with Sandy Style,' Lazenby said. 'I have no idea what that's going to look like.'

For that process, Lazenby said the city would likely assemble a larger sign code committee, which would include professional sign-makers. Besides coming up with guidelines for Sandy Style-friendly displays, the group would discuss cost options.

'Permanent signs are expensive no matter what,' Lazenby said. 'We'd provide some design guidelines that would not add to that (price), but would provide consistency with Sandy Style.'

Lazenby said his goal would be to have the rules for permanent signs developed in six months.

Bluff Road resident Kathleen Walker told the council that it needs to make sure the sign code helps Sandy's look and feel, not hurt it.

'I really feel these efforts are really offset by the sandwich board proliferation in front of many businesses,' Walker said. 'I do support local businesses … but I believe that advertising a special sale or grand opening is best done with those sandwich boards.'

She says that instead, many businesses use the signs permanently to point drivers to their establishments - resulting in a glut of the green A-frames.

Chamber Director Hollis MacLean-Wenzel said signs 'have been one of the biggest complaints' among the business community.

'There is a tremendous amount of confusion as to what's allowed, what's not allowed,' MacLean-Wenzel said. 'We're looking forward to simplifying our sign code. Going through Sandy, there is a lot of clutter, and a lot of signs that are ineffective.

'Signs are a big part of curb appeal and look,' MacLean-Wenzel added. 'There are probably some pretty effective incentives we could do around having more uniform signs, working together.'