By Sally Gillie, Monitor
Monroe’s proposed new sign code was presented to the city council this week, along with examples of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” as it applies to local signage.
Design guidelines, and an easy-to-read sign allowance table are part of the new ordinance, which is aimed at making sign regulations easier to understand by the public and simpler to enforce by city hall.
Monroe’s planning and permitting manager, Paul Popelka, told the council the new proposed code is much improved, allowing more flexibility with sign sizes in some zones, and with provisions aimed at cleaning up Monroe’s sometimes cluttered landscape in areas where A-board signs tend to proliferate. He said the proposal is the culmination of months of study by the planning commission and the city, along with Tom Beckwith, who was brought on as a consultant last fall to give a final shape to the ordinance.
Beckwith, an urban planner and designer, has worked with the cities of Snoqualmie, Kennewick and Pasco to create new sign ordinances. Monroe’s current code, said Beckwith, “has been long on language and short on illustrations,” which is why the new code incorporates graphics with the text, so a new business owner looking for sign ideas can visualize and compare, making it easier to make a decision on what types of signage to use.
A sign design guideline, which uses photo examples of preferred signage, is another helpful tool. Some “good” local signs include the Subway at Lake Tye, Red Robin, and the Galaxy 12 Theatre. The “bad” category shows the tall pole signs that seem top-heavy, like those along U.S. 2 in the commercial district.
“In essence, we’re putting good examples in front of a business as a way to say ‘this is what we’re trying to achieve; aim for this or something better,’” said Beckwith. The guidelines are not mandatory, he said, “You can’t regulate aesthetics.”
Another change aimed at simplifying the sign code, said Beckwith, was to translate sign regulations into a table format organized by zoning district. This makes it simpler for a new business to look at exactly what the restrictions are regarding type, size and placement, depending on location. It also creates better consistency with issues such as sign setbacks, something lacking in the current code.
The new code has added sections and definitions for the newer electronic and digital signs.
“Digital signs, and digital signs with motion, are on the increase,” Beckwith told the council. He said these signs, now a government-subsidized industry in China, are subsequently more affordable, which means more businesses will be using them.
Under the new sign code proposal, digital signage will be allowed in the general commercial and service commercial zones, and in the light industrial zones, such as the Fryelands district, but not in areas that are visible from Lake Tye Park. Permitting will also be stepped up for digital signage, requiring a yearly renewal.
Businesses that are set back from the main highway, such as Fred Meyer, the Galaxy 12 Theatre and Lowe’s, can have off-premise signage under the new code, with restrictions. The new code proposes allowing off-premise signs on arterials and collector roadways for smaller businesses, such as in the Fryelands district.
The maximum sign area for freestanding signs in the general commercial, service commercial and limited open space airport zones has increased from 100 square feet to 150 square feet.
While the maximum sign height of 35 feet has not changed for the general commercial stretch along U.S. 2, new maximums have been proposed in the commercial service zone at SR 522 and Main Street, allowing a sign height of 45 feet, and sign area of 140 square feet; this would apply to the Rairdon Dodge and Speedway Chevrolet dealerships.
The new code restricts A-board signs, allowing them only in the downtown commercial district and the mixed-use neighborhoods.
Jeff Sax, economic development manager for the city, said he believes that step will help eliminate the clutter that has been a concern in the business community. He said the new code is an improvement in both consistency and enforceability.
Sax said he has encouraged the Monroe Chamber of Commerce to take the lead on setting an example for good signage, perhaps working within its membership and creating its own “highest and best use” standards.
The proposed new sign code has not established fines or penalties for non-conforming signs, leaving that up to the city council. Beckwith recommends the council set those conditions separately from the ordinance, so it can make changes as needed more readily. It will also be up to the council to decide whether the new code is enforced through the administrative city staff or by the police department.
Once approved by the council, the new sign code will apply throughout the city, with the exception of the downtown historic district, which will continue to adhere to sign standards set in the downtown subarea plan. The North Kelsey subarea plan, which also had its own sign standards, will be repealed when the new ordinance is adopted.
Under the new code, non-conforming temporary signs, such as A-boards, must come into compliance within six months; business owners with these signs will be notified by the city. Non-conforming permanent signs will have 10 years to come into compliance.
Sax said the new code can also address the matter of taking down signs that have remained in place after a business has relocated, including the Monroe Monitor sign on West Main in downtown Monroe, and the Clearview Wine and Spirits sign in the Fryelands.
The council was advised by Beckwith and city staff to revisit the sign code six months or so after adoption as a way to make sure the city is headed in the right direction with any changes.
“With the new digital signage, we have to stay especially observant,” said Sax.
The city council will continue discussions on the new sign code at its April 2 meeting.