Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:42 PM on Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Seawall, signs hearings set for Jan. 23 meeting

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Signs and the seawall dominated the agenda at Monday's meetings of the Homer City Council as it met for the first time in the newly remodeled Ralph Cowles Council Chambers. As part of city hall renovations, the chambers got new carpeting, a fresh paint job and new comfortable chairs for the audience that replace the 1950s-vintage gray steel chairs.

At its regular meeting, the Homer City Council introduced ordinances that would revise Homer's sign code and appropriate $60,000 for emergency repairs to the storm ravaged Ocean Drive Loop Seawall.

Both ordinances passed on first reading and introduction. Public hearings and final action will be held at the council's meeting starting at 6 p.m. Jan. 23.

The revised sign ordinance makes several major changes to the current code. If passed, it would:

n Allow sign footage to be calculated by the building and not the lot for multiple-building shopping clusters like the Cannery Row

Boardwalk on the Homer Spit and the Yurt Village on the Sterling Highway;

• Ban temporary, commercial signs, including sandwich board signs;

• Ban flapping, unattached banner signs;

• Ban signs on parked trailers or cars not used in daily business or parked off premises;

• Allow temporary, noncommercial event signs that would have to be removed within seven days of the event;

• Limit the size of political signs to 16 square feet;

• Limit the time allowed for appeals to seven days and limit the appeal in the city only to the Homer Advisory Planning Commission. Appeals of commission rulings would go to state District Court and not the city council acting as the board of adjustment.

Although a small but vocal group of business owners and sign makers had protested the sandwich board ban at Homer Advisory Planning Commission meetings, no one spoke on the sign ordinance at the Committee of the Whole and regular meetings. While no public hearing has yet been held, citizens could have expressed opinions on matters on the agenda at the start of the meeting, as several seawall property owners did on the seawall ordinance.

City Planner Rick Abboud and planning commission chair Sharon Minsch briefed the council on the sign ordinance during the Committee of the Whole meeting. Minsch said the planning commission voted to ban sandwich board signs because some business owners kept signs up beyond the 14 days in the 90-day period currently allowed. If the city expects large businesses like Safeway and McDonald's to follow the sign ordinance, enforcement has to be consistent, she said.

"If we don't follow the sign code all the way, we can't say to Safeway 'You can't have a bigger sign,'" Minsch said.

Council member David Lewis asked Minsch why sandwich boards couldn't be allowed during business hours, with businesses putting them away at night.

"Enforcement is a nightmare," she said. "Those people who are already doing those things, they put them away. The problem is people using temporary signs as their permanent signage. They don't feel they need to comply."

City Attorney Tom Klinkner presented a substitute ordinance that made technical changes and addressed a First Amendment issue: limits on political and electoral signs. Klinkner said a section in the ordinance limiting campaign signs to 60 days before an election would be vulnerable if challenged in court.

"Under the substitute ordinance, electoral signs would be permitted only on private property as noncommercial temporary signs," Klinkner wrote in a memo supporting his version.

The council agreed with his advice and passed his suggested substitute.

Noncommercial, temporary signs would have a limit of 16 square feet, cutting in half the election signs of 32 square feet commonly seen along main streets in Homer. Signage also could be smaller depending on zoning districts.

That left the ban on commercial, temporary signs still in the proposed ordinance, and likely to be the main topic of protest at the next council meeting.

On the seawall issue, the council responded to a problem raised by the lack of an Ocean Drive Loop seawall property owners association to collect and receive taxes to maintain the seawall. In 2010 the council felt it was in the best interest of the city to let property owners work out among themselves how to repair the seawall.

Winter storms this season have hammered the seawall, particularly at the east end. Some property owners have repaired their own sections of seawall. Others have said that because the city is the name on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the seawall, the city is still responsible to repair damage. An ordinance adopted in December created the Ocean Drive Loop Special Service District to levy taxes to fund special services.

In the ordinance introduced Monday night, $60,000 would be appropriated from the general fund for emergency repairs on the seawall. It would be paid back out of property taxes levied on property owners.

Seawall owner ••Paul Hueper //ck spelling//•• urged the council to pass the special appropriation. He said that if there had been a way for seawall owners to respond quickly, the initial damage could have been fixed for $5,000. Delaying further would only raise the cost of repairs.

"Please go down and fix it," he said. "I know it's a mess."

Two other seawall owners, Don and Donna Rae McNamara, told the council they've been taking care of their 100-foot section just fine.

"We put in the bolts just like the city has asked us to do," Donna Rae McNamara said. "This private property we've been taking care of is doing very well."

Donna Rae McNamara said she also could see some inequity, with seawall owners who get the senior citizen tax exemption not suffering for any increase in taxes while younger seawall owners would pay more.

Council member Bryan Zak said he wouldn't support the ordinance. He was concerned that there was no ceiling on how much seawall owners could be charged other than the 30-mill property tax cap. With Zak voting in opposition, the ordinance was introduced.

The council also amended the Homer Public Library fee schedule to adapt its fines for the modern electronic-book age. Digital devices such as audio-file players and electronic-book readers, now have an overdue fine of $5 a day as opposed to 15 cents for books. For lost or damaged items, the fine is the replacement cost plus a $7 processing fee. Improper return of digital devices, such as putting them in drop boxes where they could be damaged, would have a $25 fee if not returned to front-desk staff.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com