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Sign code changes draw scrutiny

Of the Keizertimes

The Keizer Planning Commission continued wrestling with revisions to the city sign code at its meeting Wednesday, Sept. 13.

In addition to bringing the code in line with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, city staff are looking to update other sections of the code dealing with the number of signs allowed per storefront, window shades and the frequency of change on electronic signs.

Content vs. Category

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert and it caused cities across the nation to re-evaluate their sign codes.

The case stemmed from the town of Gilbert, Ariz., in which a small church placed signs near various buildings where it held services; the church did not have a regular site where services were held. The church was cited twice for exceeding time limits for displaying signs and for failing to include the date of the event.

Supreme Court justices, with a majority opinion and three concurring ones, determined that the city’s sign code restricted free speech by requiring specific content and that sign codes needed to be content neutral.

Keizer’s current sign code places categorical restrictions on election and real estate signage and city staff are attempting to purge those designations and replace them with more neutral language.

“Having these types of definitions in our code means it’s not content neutral and opens us up for litigation,” said Nate Brown, Keizer community development director.

The current code permits election-related signs 45 days before an election and seven days after. The proposed changes include: allowing unlimited portable signs during a specific time period around elections, allowing a specific number of signs during that time period; creating a two-week special event permit; or making no change.

The real estate section of the Keizer sign code allows for temporary portable signs on residential properties and larger signs on commercial property. The options for changes were creating a renewable special event permit for the larger commercial signs or making no change.

City Attorney Shannon Johnson would like the city to eliminate any language referring to the content of a sign, even if it is used for a category.

Commissioner Jim Jacks took issue with the need to have such discussions at all.

“The category doesn’t limit the content,” Jacks said. “Some are going to say that anything during election is fine, but others will question which elections. What about the special elections, May primaries? I don’t know if anyone will bring all these issues up, but it could be the result.”

Senior Planner Shane Witham asked the commissioners to determine if they wanted a limit on the number of signs in a yard or property and leave city staff to recommend dates.

Setting a limit on the number of signs didn’t sit well with Commissioner Hersch Sangster because the city has few resources with which to enforce such rules.

“You have to have the ability to enforce it, and we don’t and we won’t,” Sangster said. “The way it’s written now makes sense.”

After an hour of discussion, Commissioner Garry Whalen expressed frustration with the lack of progress in any direction.

“We’re fixing something that’s not broken. We’ve spent an hour on two things and we’re still shooting at ghosts,” he said.

The conversation on election and real estate signs ended with agreement between Jacks and Johnson to work on language that kept the categories without infringing on content.

The Window Loophole

Another major topic of discussion during the meeting was what restrictions, if any, to implement on window signage.

Generally, businesses in Keizer are allotted a certain amount of permanent signage, in square footage, based on the size of their frontage. However, many business windows are now covered in additional signage, known as advertising shades that serve a dual purpose – acting to reduce sunlight within a business and creating new advertising space on the exterior. City staff is proposing to limit advertising on windows to no more than 50 percent coverage.

Two commissioners, Mike DeBlasi and Whalen have talked with city staff regarding the development particularly as it relates to the two new businesses on River Road North – Jersey Mike’s and Casamigos. The windows facing River Road North are completely covered by the advertising shades.

“We have almost one big wall of billboards. I personally would like to see no more than 25 percent on streets or throughways,” DeBlasi said.

Whalen added that the shading material is available without the advertising on the other side and that it seems more like a workaround the sign code than a necessity.

“Shade protection is available without all that advertising,” Whalen said.

DeBlasi noted that the west side of the building, which gets the most sun during business hours, is completely unprotected.

There was some disagreement among the commissioners regarding propriety of such advertising.

“I don’t think that the windows look that bad as some that I have seen,” said Commissioner Kyle Juran. “I would rather see advertising than their piles of [trash].”

After some additional conversation, commissioners agreed with the staff recommendation of limiting advertising on shades to 50 percent. However, the Keizer City Council will have the final say.

New Life for

Electronic Signs

If electronic signs in Keizer seem static compared to other cities, there’s a reason for that. The current sign code only allows messages to change once every 15 minutes. For public entities, like the school and fire district, messages can only change once a day.

During the past two months of meetings, commissioners heard from numerous local business owners and managers about the desire to increase the frequency of message changes.

In addition to wanting to get more information out about their businesses, several touted the ability to help spread the word about community events.

“We do a lot of promotion for the high school and many of the fundraising dinners. I feel like we could do more of that,” said Jane Lowery, branch manager of Willamette Valley Bank.

Most advocated for increasing the message changes to every eight seconds, but some commissioners balked at that speed.

Staff did not suggest a specific time for message changes and looked to the commissioners for guidance.

“Fifteen minutes is inefficient and 8 seconds feels unsubstantiated. One of our challenges is to get a balance between safety and limiting distractions,” Whalen said.

Juran said eight seconds has not been found to be a safety issue and worked well when he purchased electronic billboard space for his business.

“Even at 15 seconds, that cascade of signs blinking and changing is an issue we have consider aesthetically,” DeBlasi said.

Brown, the community development director, said he would rather commissioners start with longer intervals and then reduce them later if warranted. Commissioners recommended changing message intervals to 60 seconds, but the city council will have the final say. xsw

A Little Extra for All

Restrictions on portable signs for all businesses could be eased if the city council approves a final recommendation from the planning commission.

Current rules restrict portable and temporary signs on commercial property to one per lot with a 50 foot separation and a 120-day limit. The rules cover A-frame signs, feather flags and banners. City staff are proposing to relax those restrictions by removing the time limit and allowing each storefront to put up a portable sign near public-right-of-way with a 10-foot separation.

The changes come at the request of business owners within shopping strips. The current rules can lead to conflict among neighboring businesses as to which one gets to put out signs on which days.

The change would likely lead to more portable signs along River Road, but Jacks cautioned against a 10-foot separation.

“Fifty (feet) is too much of a separation, but every 10 feet is going to look more like a circus or a state fair,” Jacks said.

Commissioners decided on a 25-foot separation as a medium. While such a change will relax the current restriction, business owners in the most tightly-packed shopping plazas might still find themselves vying for space.