By Sally Gillie, special to the Monitor
Good signage is critical for businesses, but too many signs competing for attention can be distracting to the public and make it hard to focus on a single message.
This is the case along some stretches of U.S. 2 in Monroe, and is just one of the challenges faced by Monroe city planners and planning commissioners as they move forward to revise the city’s sign code.
Other challenges include regulating off-premise signs along the winding roadways in the Fryelands industrial park, and establishing appropriate sign regulations in the city’s historic Main Street district.
Monroe city staff and the planning commission have once again taken on the large task of overhauling the city’s sign code. Last fall, the city contracted with consultant Tom Beckwith, an urban planner and designer whose La Conner firm has helped the cities of Snoqualmie, Kennewick and Pasco revise their sign ordinances.
As a starting point, Beckwith has translated much of Monroe’s existing sign ordinance into a table format, making it easier for businesses and city permitting personnel to zero in on what kinds of signs are permitted based on zoning district. Beckwith has also assembled a booklet of illustrated design guidelines as a way to show businesses the best examples of signage, according to type.
Monroe City Planner Mark Landkammer, who handled nearly all of the new sign applications in the city, played a key role in bringing together city staff and members of the business community to work on a new sign code. His unexpected death last month saddened those at City Hall, who continue to feel his absence. “We will miss him sorely, both personally and professionally,” said Monroe Planning and Permitting Manager Paul Popelka.
The planning commission held two workshops in January on the new code revisions and continued its deliberations at this week’s Feb. 11 meeting. After commissioners have finished their review, they will direct city staff to draft a proposed ordinance with its accompanying table and design guidelines that will go before the city council.
There will be an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the new sign code Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at Monroe City Hall.
Dave Demarest, who has served on the planning commission for more than 20 years and has seen four different sign code updates, said, “I hope the business community and residents come forward and choose to get involved in the process with the planning commission.”
Discussions at January meetings of the Monroe Planning Commission addressed the following:
Sandwich board, or A-frame signs seen at many intersections around town and along the busy U.S. 2 commercial corridor were acknowledged by planning commissioners as one of the biggest problem areas, contributing to confusion and citizen complaints.
“There’s such a proliferation of sandwich signs,” said Popelka, “and a lot of them are illegally placed, off-site and in right-of-ways. When you get so many of those things you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
The current code calls for these portable signs to only be displayed during business hours, so they must be taken down each night, a requirement that is frequently ignored.
“I think the issue here is not the boards themselves, but the fact that people leave them out 24 hours a day,” said Demarest. “If we could do something about that, it would be a big step.”
Under the new code, sandwich signs would only be allowed in the downtown area and in the West Main Street corridor, said Popelka. “That’s a positive change for the city.”
If that change becomes part of the new sign code, businesses with existing sandwich signs elsewhere in town will be informed of the change, according to Popelka. “Our strategy is to adopt the code, then over time implement enforcement. It’s going to take some time to educate people and work with business owners to come into conformance.”
The commission is also considering regulating human signs, most often seen on the busy U.S. 2 business district. These “live” signs are not addressed in the current sign code but the commission may look at making recommendations as to the location and time durations they can be used.
Monroe’s downtown district comprises historic Main Street, the roads and rails neighborhood north of the train tracks, and the mixed-use residential district that is south and east of the downtown stretching to Al Borlin Park.
Commissioners debated whether the downtown should have its own separate sign code to reflect its identity. “Do we want to have the same ordinance for historic downtown as in the Al Borlin neighborhood?” asked Demarest.
“I would like to somehow merge those areas together in the downtown so there isn’t too much confusion, so if you take 10 steps this way you aren’t in a different area,” said commissioner Wayne Rodland.
Currently, sign codes aren’t enforced in the downtown, resulting in the appearance of tall flag signs, electronic window signs, vinyl banners that become permanent rather than temporary and signs filling street-facing windows.
But the mayor has committed to enforcing the new code, said city economic development manager Jeff Sax.
Electronic and digital signs
Electronic and digital signs are fast becoming the norm around the country, said Sax, and the city’s revised sign code would adopt new definitions for electrical signs, electronic messaging signs and flashing strobe signs.
Video signs, currently prohibited, will be allowed under the new sign code. But these, and electronic digital signs, will have guidelines that are still being worked out that will restrict intensity and brightness of the signs and set size limits.
Electronic signs will be restricted to general commercial zones, “but we will be keeping these signs out of historic downtown,” said Popelka.
Real estate signs – non permitted signs
Commissioners and city staff agreed that real estate signs, such as those advertising homes for sale, or commercial properties for sale or lease, would not require a city permit. The new sign code will set some restrictions, however, on how many commercial real estate signs can be posted per property and how large those signs can be.
Other signs that will not require city permits include yard sale signs, special events signs for schools or churches, and political signs.
The industrial park in west Monroe is home to retail businesses, light industrial, commercial, and even churches, and this wide range of services poses special sign challenges for the business community.
Popelka said there are businesses there that suffer from lack of visibility, which is one reason why so many have chosen to put up A-boards, sometimes blocks and blocks away from their premises.
Other businesses in the area aren’t necessarily looking for drive-by business, but simply want customers to be able to find their location, something that can be difficult when the business are located at the far end of a large building and a distance from the street.
Off-premise signs are often misused in this district as businesses there try to enhance visibility, said Sax.
Entry monument signs, which are freestanding signs used to direct people to a main entrance in an industrial area or an office park, are a possible solution for this district.
Down the road, Sax said Monroe will be looking at adopting a wayfinding sign program, “so if you’re driving into town, at any of four points of entry, a monument sign would say ‘Welcomes to Monroe,’ and at intersections there would be blade signs directing you to the library, for instance.”
These city wayfinding signs would be easy to identify, using graphics to create a brand that’s consistent throughout town. Eventually, said Sax, the city could look at ways that businesses could possibly get on board with these signs.
Gateway signs, which identify districts such as the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, the downtown shopping district, and the North Kelsey area will also be looked at in the future.
The city’s new sign code will open the door for businesses located off a main highway that may want to join together and put up signage on a property with greater visibility to drivers. Candidates for that would include businesses like Galaxy Theatre or Lowe’s, said Sax. “The question is, how much do we want to allow off-premise signs and in what circumstances?” he said.
Another version of wayfinding signs can also be those traditional signs shaped like arrows that point the way to a location.
“The problem you can run into with those signs is that if you get too many locations on them, they lose effectiveness,” said Beckwith.
Sax said that written into the code will be the proviso that the code will be revisited in a year to see how it is going and to make adjustments as needed.
This week the planning commission is expected to finish its review of the sign code and direct city staff to complete a finalized version that will be ready for a public hearing before the planning commission on Feb. 25.
The new sign code revisions are still in the draft stages, and can be viewed on the city’s website. Go to www.monroewa.gov, then follow the link to government, and then planning commission.