September 04, 2013 - After years of discussing and tweaking, it seems like the Oxford Village Council is finally ready to move forward with a major overhaul of its sign ordinance.
Under the proposed amendments to Oxford Village's sign ordinance, portable sidewalk signs like the ones frequently used downtown would be prohibited. (click for larger version)
Last week, council voted 4-0 to approve the first reading of an amended sign ordinance and schedule a second reading/potential adoption for the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 meeting at 22 W. Burdick St.
"Is there anybody here who thinks that this document as it now stands . . . is not a great improvement over what we had before? I'm not going to raise my hand," said village President Pro-Tem Dave Bailey. "I think we see eye-to-eye on that one. What we've got (here) is better than what we had."
Some of the major changes include prohibiting portable sidewalk signs (shown left), temporary banners on the Polly Ann Trail bridge over M-24, signs with manually changeable letters, exterior pennants, pennant strings, feather flags, spinners and streamers.
Electronic message signs are prohibited unless a special use permit is obtained and exterior string lights are not allowed in connection with commercial lots except in the vicinity of outdoor dining as approved by the planning commission and holidays from day after Thanksgiving until Jan. 15.
Other changes include limiting the number of flags to three per lot (currently there's no limit); requiring the removal of real estate signs within 10 days of a lot or unit being sold or rented; and prohibiting vehicles that feature signage from parking on public property for the sole purpose of advertising.
John Jackson, vice president of McKenna Associates, the village planner, noted the vehicle prohibition only applies to non-employee parking areas in publicly-owned lots.
"We're not regulating parking of vehicles with advertising on them in private parking lots," he said.
In the commercial zoning districts (C-1, C-1 Transitional and C-2), interior/window signs would be permitted to cover up to 25 percent of window space (currently it's 10 percent), but they must leave between 4 and 7 feet from grade of open space to enable people to see the merchandise inside the store.
Dan Durham, the village's code enforcement officer, said the ban on portable sidewalk signs is going to cause the "biggest problem" and lead to a "clean break" with the business community.
"If you leave it in there, unchanged, the reader is going to, at that point, drop the ordinance and not want to follow any of the rest of it," he told council. "It's that serious."
Durham admitted he's no fan of sidewalk signs.
"I don't think they look particularly nice or do too much for the look of the downtown," he told council. "I don't understand why (businesses) need them, and then it occurred to me that I don't need to understand why they feel they need them because I don't own a business; they do."
Every one of the business owners Durham's talked to over the last five years has independently told him the same thing, the signs are necessary.
Over and over again, Durham said he's heard, "We need these. These are vital. We need to be able to advertise changes. When we buy too much of one thing and not another, we need to have a way of letting people know."
Former village President Tony Albensi agreed.
"If the business owner feels that they have a need for a sandwich board sign to advertise for them, then they should be allowed to have a sandwich board sign," he said. "It helps their business."
Councilwoman Sue Bossardet noted it was the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) that requested the elimination of sidewalk signs.
She explained the proposed ordinance was reviewed by members of the DDA, local business people and Durham.
"The (sign ordinance) subcommittee went through all those comments and incorporated (them into the proposed ordinance)," Bossardet said. "We sought other people's opinions. It wasn't just ours."
Bryan Cloutier, chairman of the village planning commission, weighed in on the sidewalk/sandwich board sign prohibition as someone who helped create the proposed ordinance.
"I don't like them, but that's my opinion," he said. "I don't know personally if they are good for business or bad for business. I didn't do a scientific study to find out.
"But as Ms. Bossardet did say, we talked to a lot of people – not just business owners, but other people within the community and (we) also found out what other communities are doing in terms of that – and that was the decision we came up with."
Durham also took issue with the fact that in the village planner's memo regarding the proposed sign ordinance amendments, it was stated that, "All existing permanent signage in the village would be 'grandfathered' and permitted under the new ordinance."
"The signage that you see now, a lot of it is outside the ordinance and the people that put it up knew that," he said. "When it was discussed with them, we always got the same response – 'You're putting a new sign ordinance together. I don't want to spend money on something I might have to throw out next week.'"
"Unless you're talking about monument signs and fixed-type signs, throwing out a blanket policy that they're all automatically okay now will be a problem. It will be an enforcement issue down the road," Durham warned.
Jackson apologized for the "informal language" in the memo regarding the "grandfathering" issue.
"The actual ordinance itself spells out what constitutes a non-conforming sign," he explained. "It does have to be something that was legally approved. Illegal signs that are existing would not be considered legal non-conforming. They'd be considered illegal non-conforming and would be subject to whatever fines, violations and other methods (are allowed) to get (the owners) to fix it."
Albensi expressed his concern that the proposed sign ordinance could infringe on people's freedom of speech when it came to political signs.
Under the proposed sign ordinance, "opinion signs," which include those concerning political candidates or issues, cannot exceed 6 square feet on a single lot and the maximum height for each sign is 4 feet.
"I think you may open yourself up to some trouble if you start limiting some of those political signs," Albensi said. "I've been against that right from the start. I think it is a First Amendment issue."
Albensi noted the First Amendment was created "specifically" to protect political speech.
"As a property owner in this town, if I want to support three candidates for office or three particular ballot issues and I want to put three signs in my yard to support that and the total size of those signs exceeds your ordinance, what's going to happen?" he said. "Is somebody going to come and remove that sign from my yard? I would hope not."
Village attorney Bob Davis pointed out that all signage has First Amendment issues related to it. He noted "there's an argument that 'my property is for sale; it looks great' is an expression of an opinion as well."
"You can face challenges of equal protection when you start to allow (political) signs in abundance and you restrict other signage," he explained. "So, you have to kind of hit the middle ground there."
"One of the ways I've seen communities get around that is they place a lot of limits on time with respect to the political signage," Davis continued. "They limit it in terms of its duration [how long signs can be up] and its immediate pickup (following an election). I know we've all driven on the expressway and (seen) a sign from the election in '08. We just wonder if anyone's ever going to go get that."
Placing time-related limits on political signs helps a community "justify allowing more of them and not restricting what could be (a) freedom of speech issue," according to Davis.
Davis noted, "It's not unlawful, per se, to limit the amount of political signage. I just think it invites potential controversy. You can get around that by putting other restrictions on that (ordinance) paragraph."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.