By Sally Gillie, Monitor
There may be conflicting opinions on what types of signs work best, and in what sections of town, but most agree on this: Monroe could benefit from a new sign ordinance.
Applications for new signs come to city hall at the rate of about two to five a week, according to city planner Mark Landkammer, and he handles nearly all of them. It can be a straightforward process, as in the case of Republic Mortgage on Lewis Street, whose owners wanted to put in raised letters that fit in nicely with historic downtown.
Other times, it can be a bit of challenge, such as when issuing permits to businesses in buildings with multiple tenants, especially if they are on an upper floor with no street frontage.
“I have to do a bit of digging around in the code sometimes,” Landkammer said. “There’s a lot that could be done to make our sign code easier to work with.”
About a year and a half ago, Landkammer pulled together members of the Monroe business community and the Chamber of Commerce to meet on a regular basis and bring forward ideas about how to improve the sign ordinance, written in 2005. There were issues of clarity and fairness, said Landkammer, as well as with the growing trend toward video and electronic signs.
“As we sat down it began to creep up on us that this was a big process, and by early 2012 we realized to get it done would involve a lot of staff time and research, and we looked at the possibility of bringing in a consultant,” said Landkammer.
Enter Tom Beckwith, an urban planner and designer, who has a consulting group in LaConner that has helped the cities of Snoqualmie, Kennewick and Pasco create new sign ordinances. “We were lucky to get Tom Beckwith,” said Landkammer, who said Beckwith’s advanced credentials as a Fellow with the American Institute of Certified Planners make him a good choice for the city of Monroe.
Beckwith, who described Monroe’s current signage as “cluttered,” said he will be working with the city to tackle the new sign ordinance in two stages, first looking at the style and format in which the sign code is presented, and only then moving on to the substantive changes.
In a Nov. 26 workshop meeting with the Monroe Planning Commission, Beckwith presented commissioners with a scrubbed down version of the city’s current sign ordinance as a place to start.
He has also created a “sign allowance table,” taking the pertinent information from Monroe’s existing sign code and breaking it down into sections according to zoning, sign type or purpose. The table definitions show square footage and height restrictions for various signs, including setbacks, and the number of signs allowed for a particular business or other use.
This breakdown of the ordinance, said Beckwith, should make it easier for the city and businesses to identify those elements of the current sign code that they would like to target for future changes.
The table format has “really reduced the length of the ordinance,” said Paul Popelka, planning and permitting manager for the city. “Now we can go to one place and find everything we need. It’s so much simpler, not only for businesses but for the city.”
The table also showed some gaps in the city’s current sign code.
Product signs, sometimes very large ones displayed at local franchises, could be better addressed in the city’s ordinance, said Beckwith. These businesses, from drive-thru fast food chains to mini-marts, he said, “are often forced by their corporate ownership to display really large product signs.” A good sign ordinance could eliminate those signs, or put restrictions on how they’re used.
Window signs are another vague area. The city’s current code doesn’t differentiate between opaque window signs, which could be a poster or wording about store hours of operation, and transparent logo signs.
Monroe’s current sign code only allows for signage on one window per business, but most other cities would allow signs in each window in the business that faces the street, according to Beckwith.
Beckwith added that Monroe is one of the few cities he’s seen that still allows for roof signs. “Roof signs have kind of gone out,” he said, “except for on those older-style mansard roofs.”
Temporary signs, such as those at a new construction site, are also largely left out of the current ordinance, said Beckwith, as are wall signs and banners for special events. The right type of ordinance can set the number of times an “out of business” sign could go up, as well, discouraging those businesses that are always having a final close-out sale.
Electronic signs, said Beckwith, are the most volatile area in signage, “with technology dramatically changing these kinds of signs. It used to be the pulsating signs, now there are some that use full screen LED,” he said. It’s up to the individual cities to determine how distracting these signs may be, and if these signs have to meet different standards of brightness for daytime or nighttime.
Owners of commercial businesses may think that the more square footage allowed for a sign the better, but a huge sign doesn’t necessarily mean big impact, said Beckwith.
He singled out Best Buy and Home Depot as two examples of how a relatively small signage space can draw attention very effectively. This is best done, he said, when a sign is “woven into the building motif,” which can use color as well as architecture to call attention to itself. That is the case with Best Buy, which paints its entire wall blue, giving high impact to the much smaller business name.
Popelka said a common problem is that some businesses use too many words, creating a hard-to-read sign that doesn’t get the message across.
At last week’s workshop, planning commissioners commented favorably on the table format as a practical way to understand the sign code.
“The presentation is a good approach that makes a lot of sense,” said Dave Demarest. Dian Duerksen agreed. “I think it’s a very easy to read,” she said.
Landkammer said he appreciates the clarity of the table format. “We can quickly see what sign possibilities a building could have. It’s precise, which is good,” he said.
The types of signs that generate the most complaints, said Landkammer, are A-board, or A-frame signs.
“Our code says they have to be on-site, but we see them sometimes a mile away,” he said, saying that spots that are especially troublesome are on 179th Avenue S.E. and 149th Street near the Fryelands Industrial Park, and along U.S. 2 and Chain Lake Road.
Response to complaints, Landkammer said, begins with a letter to the offending business, and then a second letter if the business hasn’t complied. He said when a complaint is considered more serious, he may notify the police department, at which time an officer will go out and confiscate the sign. Ideally, Landkammer said, the city could someday have a part-time employee to monitor business signs and handle complaints, but a position like that isn’t in the budget and isn’t likely to be anytime soon.
Meanwhile, a cleaner ordinance could help with enforcement by making it easier for new businesses to avoid non-compliance, and to identify which signs may be in violation of the city code so that enforcement could take place more quickly.
The Monroe Planning Commission will likely be looking at the new ordinance for several weeks, with the first public hearings on the new ordinance to be scheduled sometime after the first of next year. After the commission has finished revising the ordinance, it will go before the city council for final approval.
Eventually, the city’s new sign allowance table, as well as illustrated designs of favorable types of signs, would be posted on the city’s website for easy referral by residents and business owners.
These visuals, said Beckwith, while not part of the ordinance, “will be guidelines or examples of the kinds of signs the city would like to encourage, for example in the North Kelsey District or Downtown District.”
“When we’re done,” said Landkammer, “we should have an ordinance that’s more user-friendly and more enforceable. We want to do the best we can to give businesses the recognition they need, yet keep Monroe’s visual scape clean and be a place where tourists want to spend their money.”
The Monroe Planning Commission will continue discussions on the new sign ordinance at its Dec. 10 meeting, at 7 p.m., at the city council chambers. Beckwith said he plans to show commissioners examples of good and bad signage.