Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) sign regulations were again the topic of discussion at the Sultan City Council meeting on Thursday, July 10. Councilmembers were asked to provide city staff with direction on how to best deal with the repercussions of a recent complaint received by the DOT.
The complaint was generally related to signs located on the DOT right-of-way, on the south side of U.S. 2, just beyond the decorative Sultan sign at the west end of the city. The complaint brought to light the fact that many different categories of signage are simply not permitted on DOT right-of-way. Sultan’s Senior Planner Stacy MacGregor sought council input as far as how to proceed in regards to the off-site commercial signs in violation of DOT policy.
Depending on the type of sign in question, the rules and regulations differ. The area specifically targeted in the complaint has several off-site commercial business signs, as well as signs advertising for Stockings, a nearby garden and nursery business.
Political campaign signs were also ubiquitous in the area; all of which have since been removed.
The three types of signs that were identified as being in violation of DOT rules are each subject to different regulations. MacGregor stated that, in order to facilitate the removal of the campaign signs, the city sent out letters to five different political campaigns and asked them to remove their signs.
All of the campaigns complied promptly.
As far as commercial signs are concerned, DOT regulations disallow all forms of off-site commercial speech in any DOT right-of-way. The city of Sultan, however, has made allowances for certain forms of off-site commercial speech within city limits, particularly for businesses located on Main Street which need help drawing folks in from the highway. And while it was specifically signs away from the immediate downtown corridor that were identified in the complaint, sign placement in that area could be impacted, as well.
Despite Sultan’s regulations regarding off-site commercial business signs, the DOT still controls the U.S. 2 right-of-way.
This means that, should they choose to do so, the DOT could come along and remove all off-site commercial signage placed in the U.S. 2 right-of-way, both inside and outside of city limits, regardless of whether or not the signs are on private property.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that the precise boundaries of the DOT right-of-way are not known and the city does not have available funding to have the area formally surveyed.
“It’s a complicated issue, and the right-of-way is not necessarily uniform,” said City Administrator Ken Walker.
The right-of-way can be determined, however, within a reasonably small degree of uncertainty. For some businesses along the U.S. 2 corridor, their parking lots essentially exist in the U.S. 2 right-of-way.
MacGregor said that city staff was seeking direction specifically on how to best address the off-site commercial signs in violation of DOT rules because, according to DOT guidelines, the city has a responsibility to enforce DOT policy. She asked if council would like the city to send letters to the relevant business owners; investigate the possibility of issuing fines to the violators or to simply leave the commercial signs the way they are and take no further action.
She stated that, in regards to Stockings’ signs, the city would be taking a hands-off approach. In previous years, the nursery has obtained special permission from both the DOT and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, and in order to renew their DOT permit they will need to negotiate with BNSF themselves.
Councilmembers Rocky Walker and John Seehuus suggested sending out a letter to each business owner in Sultan to notify them of the potential hazards associated with having off-site commercial signs located in the U.S. 2 right-of-way. They stated that they did not want local businesses to risk losing their commercial signs via confiscation by the DOT, as these signs can be quite costly.
Walker stated that he felt it was best to notify all business owners of the issue, regardless of whether or not they currently have signs positioned in the right-of-way.
Councilmember Jeffrey Beeler was greatly troubled over the potentially negative impact this could have on the businesses in Sultan. He was strongly opposed to the city utilizing city time and funds to attempt to enforce DOT regulations either by sending out notifications to business owners or facilitating sign removal themselves.
“We’re going to hurt our businesses if we’re taking their signs down,” said Beeler. “If WashDOT wants to enforce this, let them enforce it.”
Beeler stated that the greatest challenge that Sultan business owners face, particularly those located on Main Street, is getting folks in the doors of their establishments. The last thing they need is for the situation to become even more difficult. He advocated for taking no enforcement action at all and waiting to see if the DOT forces the issue.
“Let them come down hard on us… Let them send us a letter saying, ‘You guys aren’t enforcing this,’” said Beeler. “As far as I’m concerned I don’t want to hurt the businesses here.”
Councilmember Marianne Naslund sought clarification as to the origin of the complaint. Council had been given a copy of a public records request prior to the meeting which identified the individual who called in the original grievance.
“I’m looking at this public records request, and I see Kay George’s name on it,” said Naslund. “Based on what I’m reading in front of me, it’s saying that you were the complainant, Kay. Is that correct?”
Naslund addressed ex-councilmember George, who was in the audience. George acknowledged that she was indeed responsible for contacting the authorities.
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Neigel asked for council consensus on what action should be taken in regards to the off-site commercial signage. Councilmembers Seehuus and Walker advocated for notifying all business owners of the risk. Davenport-Smith communicated that her preference was to take no enforcement action at this point in time, as was the pleasure of Neigel, Beeler, Bob McCarty and Naslund.
“My feeling is that the complaint was probably made because of Carolyn Eslick’s campaign sign and I don’t think all the business owners should be penalized for the animosity of one,” said Naslund. “I support doing nothing.”
Councilmember McCarty suggested putting a notification in with the city’s utility bill, which was a widely accepted idea by all. He also recommended contacting Senator Kirk Pearson for further clarification, and supported taking no enforcement action at the present time.
“It seems to be an unfunded mandate which I don’t care for,” said McCarty.
George got the opportunity to clarify her position during the final public comment period. Meeting attendees are allowed to comment specifically on agenda items during this time.
“The reason that I called the county was not that I objected to Carolyn’s sign, but I objected to city employees taking down opposition to Carolyn’s sign,” said George.
George stated that everyone has a right to free political speech. She stated that city employees were removing signs which had been placed in opposition to Eslick’s campaign signs and she didn’t feel that this was appropriate.
“My intent was for the city to stop selectively enforcing the law. City employees were taking down opposition signs,” said George.
“This is wrong, and I reported it,” she continued.
For any clarification on either DOT right-of-way sign policy or the city of Sultan’s sign code, please contact the city at 360-793-2231. The council packet from the July 10 meeting can be located here: http://ci.sultan.wa.us/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/July-10-2014-Agenda-Packet.pdf.