Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 9:32 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Spit sign rules should focus mostly on safety

When the city decided to update its comprehensive plan, it put aside for special attention the Homer Spit. This week, the Spit came up for more extra consideration when the Homer City Council and the Homer Advisory Planning Commission met jointly to consider a vexing problem: widespread abuse of the city's sign ordinance on the Spit.

The city is right to look for solutions to what some call toxic clutter and what others think of as the Spit's charm. Just as the city looked at a modified comp plan for the Spit, it might consider a modified sign ordinance for Spit businesses. Before the city does that, however, it might look at how downtown businesses have adapted to the sign ordinance. The heavy hand of the law needn't be applied if businesses can be educated to work within the sign ordinance to advertise and mark their shops, stores, bars and restaurants.

While Pioneer Avenue businesses don't follow the letter of the law perfectly, they follow its spirit. A business lures customers not just with signs, but with an interesting décor and an inviting street side presence. For example, no one needs a 20-foot wide sign to find Cafe Cups. It's the restaurant with the big cups over the front door. The idea behind Homer's sign ordinance is to prevent sign wars. If one business puts up a big sign, another has to put up a bigger sign to be seen, which leads to bigger signs until pretty soon you're in Las Vegas — or Las Anchorage. That's what seems to be happening on the Spit.

Part of the problem arises from the Spit's density. The 150-square-foot cap on signage works if you have one store on a lot, as happens downtown. On the Spit, if you have 15 stores on a lot, that's one 10-foot-square sign per store, or a 2-foot tall, 5-foot long sign. Maybe if you're a competitive business, that's not enough, but think about it. How hard is it to find the Salty Dawg? How big is its sign? A little creativity can lure customers in. Sometimes when everyone is shouting, it's the person who speaks softly who gets noticed.

One kind of sign that shouldn't be tolerated, though, is sandwich board signs on the edge of roads. Council member Kevin Hogan was right when he said, "For me, there's one nonnegotiable — sandwich board signs that force pedestrians out into the right-of-way. That's a real problem. A safety problem."`

Those signs also violate state laws prohibiting signs in right-of-ways. The Homer Police have a clear responsibility to prevent such violations, just as they would remove a broken down truck obstructing traffic. Haul those signs away and let businesses pay a fine to pick them up.

Homer has become known as an arts community, a town that uses creativity to market itself. Use that creativity. Hire any of our hundreds of artists to give your Spit business a special look. Heck, that's what the class of 2010 did to spiff up the Homer High School commons. If kids can get creative, businesses can, too.

Maybe with some gentle persuasion and guidance from the city, bureaucrats won't have to get heavy handed with the rules. Maybe the Spit can keep its charm without the clutter.