Signs of the times — Soldotna considers city code changes

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

There are troubling signs in Soldotna. Or signs of trouble. Or, more specifically, trouble regarding signs.

That’s a sign in itself — when just describing a situation is difficult, managing it is even more so. Nevertheless, that’s the position the city of Soldotna is in regarding the posting of temporary/portable signs in the right of way along the highway corridors. Sandwich boards, banners, chunks of painted plywood propped with sand bags and cinder blocks or just markered posterboard facing the inevitable doom of wind or rain, announcing to passers-by all manner of festivals, sports games, performances, fundraisers, craft shows, farmers markets and other events.

Illegal, the whole lot of them.

“For types of portable signs and, really, any signs that are in the right of way, our code is very clear — they are prohibited. But you wouldn’t suspect that by driving downtown,” said Stephanie Queen, the city’s director of economic development and planning.

For event organizers, temporary roadside signs are a quick, effective way of advertising — Rodeo this weekend! Oilers game tonight! Kenai River Festival parking ahead! Carwash next right!

And for those passing by, signs are an equally quick, effective way to be informed of something in which they might have interest.

But such postings also pose potential problems, as safety risks to drivers and pedestrians if placed so as to impede vision, as unsightly eyesores or at least visual irritants to those not wanting to view the clutter, as an unfairness to those to those missing out on the free advertising by not posting temporary/portable signs, and as a challenge to the city in struggling to decide what to do about them.

Direction from the city code is clear — such signs are not allowed — but the community’s preference on the matter is not.

“There are instances where people really like those signs — with an event going on they find them a really helpful way to know about it. We also hear from people that they don’t mind the signs if they look nice, but we don’t have any guidance about sign appearance in the code,” Queen said.

Should temporary/portable signs continue to be banned altogether, or should there be opportunities to allow them? If so, where, when and for what should they be allowed, and how should they be constructed and displayed? The issues are as cluttered as the intersections of the Sterling Highway, Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road can become during the height of summer activity season.

There hasn’t been a clear sign of support for one side or another on whether to ban portable/temporary signs or allow them with some kind of regulation, Queen said.

“Of all the things that are in our jurisdiction, this one is the most difficult to kind of answer that question because we have business owners and residents who will call and say, ‘I think this sign is a real blight on our downtown.’ Then we’ll have business owners who say, ‘This sign is absolutely necessary for me to survive,’” Queen said. “And from residents it’s not clear to me that there’s a consistent, overriding feeling on this. I’m hopeful that we’ll at some point approach that, but I also think, of all the issues, this is the one that has people on all sides of it.”

At its Breakfast and Benefits member appreciation event in May, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey that included two sign-related questions. When asked, “How important is the physical appearance of our highway corridors to our economy?” 52 percent of chamber members in attendance responded that it’s critical, 46 percent said “somewhat,” while 2 percent said they were neutral, and none replied that it is not important.

When asked if portable/temporary signs should be allowed in Soldotna, 8 percent answered, “Yes, they’re critical to business and should not be regulated,” 12 percent responded, “Yes, but only if the city requires design standards to ensure they look nice,” 56 percent indicated, “Yes, but only on a limited basis — OK for special events or short periods of time,” 20 percent said, “No, they’re an eyesore and make our downtown look tacky/cheap,” and 4 percent indicated no preference.

As the code currently stands, the city can instruct the owner of the property on which illegal signs are posted to remove the signs, contact those responsible for illegal signs in a road’s right of way to remove them, remove the signs themselves, or even issue a fine for noncompliance.

“Safety is one of our primary considerations, first and foremost,” Queen said. “We want to make sure vehicles can see when coming out of driveways and that people have access to the sidewalks and the trails that we have.”

Each department is responsible for enforcement of its section of code, so it’s up to Planning personnel in Soldotna to deal with signage. Personnel take turns, Queen said, and they’ve even got a vehicle with which to do it.

“We’ve got a retired police vehicle now available for our administrative use, so if it looks like we’re driving around in an old cop car, it is. I feel like the Blues Brothers, only we don’t have city-issued sunglasses,” Queen said.

Though they’ve got the car and the code authority, the department most often takes a more passive approach (certainly never to invoking Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration).

Education is the preferred method of dealing with noncompliant signs, Queen said. In 2010, the Planning Department sent out postcards to chamber members and property owners along the highways informing them of the signage regulations — that temporary/portable signs in a business area, such as sandwich boards, banners and posters, and any nonroad signs in the right of way are illegal, but that the city does offer a way to allow temporary signage for a special event by permit.

“Our philosophy is to not issue fines,” Queen said. “Our approach is to let people know what the rules are and give them an opportunity to correct it. (After the postcards), really quickly and voluntarily the majority of them were taken care of, but it’s something if you don’t do that every year, then first thing in the spring the signs go out, then other people think, ‘Well, I need that exposure,’ and by this time in the year it’s something that’s pretty prolific.”

Generally, the city’s response to unlawful signage is complaint driven, but even specific reports can cause some heartburn to enforce.

“On the way to that violation you might see eight others that are identical, and it didn’t seem fair to me to single out the one that we got a call about. I want to make sure the code we’re enforcing is the one the community supports, and I’ve gotten some inclination that isn’t the case,” Queen said.

The city has looked leniently on the sign proliferation lately as it decides what to do.

“This year we took a step back from proactive enforcement in that section of code for the Planning Commission and city planner to really look into that section and see if that’s still the policy we want moving forward. It seems to me our regulation might be slightly out of synch of what might be the best solution,” Queen said.

She said the city wants to communicate with the business community and residents and decide if the signage regulations need to change. Anyone interested can attend a Planning Commission meeting and offer their perspective, or call or email John Czarnezki, city planner, to weigh in on the matter and ask to be kept in the loop as the process continues. Queen said she also intends for the department to go door to door along the highway corridor.

“Our downtown is small enough you can do that. I’ve found you get a lot better feedback just getting out and talking to folks. For an issue like this that is so nuanced, I find that kind of interaction would be very helpful,” she said.

Much of the discussion will likely be education, as most people placing temporary/portable signs probably don’t even know they shouldn’t be doing so.

“It’s important that everybody have the opportunity to know what the rules are and that we enforce it fairly and consistently. That’s been challenging to do with signs,” Queen said.

The rules aren’t well known, and even when they are known they can be difficult to follow. More permanently constructed signs are allowed along the highway corridors on private property, back from the Department of Transportation’s right of way, but that boundary is not a straight line and can vary substantially from lot to lot.

“It is difficult for a person to even know where that line is. In one spot the property line might be really close to the sidewalk, then you go to the property next door and it’s 70 feet back. Linking to the right of way means some people can have signs right by the sidewalk, and next door it might be 60 or 70 feet back,” Queen said.

The reconsideration process might result in updates to other areas of the signage code, as well, Queen said, but the goal is to make the code make more sense, not make it more restrictive.

For instance, there’s a maximum size allowed for fixed signs on walls of buildings, not taking into account how far away a building is from the road. So Wilderness Way, right along the Sterling Highway, and the Peninsula Center Mall, set back across a parking lot from the highway, are subject to the same sign size rule.

“It doesn’t make sense that signs need to be the same size. That could be a safety concern, too — if it’s too small and not legible, are people slowing down and squinting trying to read it?” Queen said. “There are some changes that could just make (the code) a lot easier to understand. There are some standards in our code that I think are too restrictive on signage.”

The city is starting to gather feedback now and the council will likely start addressing the matter this winter so that new rules, if any code changes do come out of the process, will be in effect next summer.

“We’re going to spend a few months looking into this and trying to better understand what people want, and then we’ll make some recommendations to the city council on what that is so we will be able to help people get informed and then try and stay on top of it,” she said.

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