Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:31 PM on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sign ordinance sent back to planning commission

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

A sign code revision that the Homer Advisory Planning Commission started working on in September 2010 got sent back to the planning commission Monday night when the Homer City Council asked the commission to do more work.

The big issue? Banning temporary or sandwich board signs for commercial use.

With the sign ordinance back in the planning commission's hands, the delay could mean it will be at least two or three months before the council again takes up the issue. That means businesses in town and on the Homer Spit will stay under the current code, including a provision that businesses cannot put up sandwich board signs more than 14 days in a 90-day period.

City Planner Rick Abboud said he had wanted to have new rules in place by the busy summer tourist season.

"We were hoping this would pass so I could educate them on a new ordinance," Abboud said of local businesses and nonprofits.

Planning Commission Chair Sharon Minsch said she would try to get the issue on the agenda sooner rather than later in hopes the new rules could be passed by the tourist season.

Abboud said the next step for him and his staff is to look at the council's direction and prepare a draft incorporating its stipulations. Because sections of the ordinance are intertwined, Abboud has to be careful that changes made in one section are reflected in other sections. Two weeks ago at a committee of the whole meeting, Minsch had advised the council to be cautious in making wholesale changes.

"What I'm concerned about is it is really complex," Abboud said.

Once Abboud has written a draft and staff report, it goes to the planning commission for its review and eventual public hearings. The council also directed the draft ordinance go to the Economic Development Commission for its comments before coming back to the council. Abboud said that could take at least two months, if not longer.

If passed, one big change would have helped Spit shops on boardwalks like the Cannery Row and Big Bear boardwalks. The current code limits square footage for signs based by the lot. The new code would have applied square footage limits by the building, allowing small businesses that rent space on boardwalks to come into compliance. New businesses can't get sign permits because the square footage for a lot has been maxed out.

Council members Barbara Howard, Kevin Hogan and Bryan Zak all balked at the limits to temporary signs for commercial use. Civic events like the Share the Spirit Spaghetti Feed or the Street Faire would have been allowed to have temporary signs, as would nonprofits. All three council members have businesses on Pioneer Avenue, the Spit and the Sterling Highway. Howard, Lewis and Zak introduced motions that directed the planning commission to:

• Leave the temporary sign provisions in the code for commercial businesses;

• Put some limitations on real estate signs;

• Keep electoral signs at 32 square feet;

• Have the planning commission come up with a policy for sandwich board signs and how they can be used as an economic tool;

• Send the ordinance back to the planning commission with an emphasis on being pro-business;

• Send it back with an emphasis placed on safety; and

• Send it back asking for a balance that's pro-business with an aesthetic framework.

Zak had tried to introduce a provision creating different rules for town and the Spit, but it died for lack of a second.

At planning commission hearings and a public hearing on Monday, local business owners criticized an outright ban on sandwich board signs. The suggested ban came about out of frustration by the planning department and the commission in enforcing the 14-day limit, particularly on the Homer Spit.

Adrienne Sweeney, owner of the Driftwood Inn and AJ's Old Town Steakhouse, said she didn't think it fair that she couldn't advertise daily music events on a temporary sign while a nonprofit organization could.

"A nonprofit gallery can advertise daily events but a for-profit art gallery may not," she also noted.

Chip Duggan, the new owner of the Glacier Drive-In on the Spit, also questioned why real estate agencies could put up temporary signs and other businesses couldn't.

Marilyn Hueper, owner with her husband Paul of the Homer Inn and Spa on Ocean Drive Loop, said she understood the desire to protect a Homer aesthetic that can be a draw in itself. But signs also can be a boon to business.

"Sandwich boards and banners create a sense of energy," she said. "It creates a sense of excitement."

In the committee of the whole meeting, Howard said she wanted to keep the 14-day limit on temporary signs, calling the ordinance "fair and equitable." Howard said she also didn't want to change restrictions on keeping signs out of right of ways.

"We have a few folks who choose not to abide by it," she said. "It seems like if we take this away, we are punishing the good folks who do abide by it."

Minsch said the planning commission struggled with finding a way sandwich signs can be used safely, aesthetically and fairly and be pro-business unless everyone can have one.

"The planning commission is not pro- or anti-business," Minsch wrote in an email while on vacation. "We are pro Homer."

Sweeney praised the move to send the ordinance back for review. She favors doing away with the 14-day limit and allowing temporary signs year round, provided they are kept up and not on sidewalks and in right of ways.

"I see this as a blessing in disguise," Sweeney said after the meeting. "We can take this as an opportunity to fix the current language so those of us trying to get our message out there can do that every day."

In other action, the council also approved creating the Ocean Drive Loop Special Service District to fund maintenance and repair of the Ocean Drive Loop Seawall and appropriated $60,000 to fund repairs. Some seawall owners protested creating that district, saying they had concerns their taxes could escalate beyond their budgets. Others pointed out the inequity of tax rates that could result, with seniors getting an exemption. Seawall owner Don McNamara said some property owners would pay $200 more a year while others would pay $6,400 a year.

The city has been caught in the middle. Although ownership of the seawall was transferred to Ocean Drive Loop landowners who share the wall, the city's name is on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to build it.

Some seawall owners have said that means the city should still maintain it. The city has been trying to get its name off the permit.

Complicating the issue is that the seawall owners don't have an association set up — or that was acceptable to the city — to manage, collect funds and repair the wall. Seawall owners like McNamara have said they've been maintaining their section of the wall and it should be an individual responsibility.

Mill rates won't be set for six months, which might allow time for these issues to be resolved.

The council also:

• Appropriated $114,288 from the Sewer Reserve Account for polymer equipment replacement at the wastewater treatment plant;

• Appropriated $9,623 more for the Deep Water Dock Security Gates;

• Authorized travel for Mayor James Hornaday and Zak to attend the Alaska Municipal League winter legislative conference in Juneau;

• Approved a cooperative agreement between the city and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for repair of facilities at the Load and Launch Ramp;

• Awarded $202,500 to R & M Consultants for dock fender replacements at the Deep Water Dock.

Wrede said he'll be coming back to the council with another request for emergency repairs to fenders and dolphins at the Pioneer Dock after the M/V Kennicott damaged them during a recent docking. The state will eventually cover that cost.

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