Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:57 PM on Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interpreting Homer's sign ordinance

Rules are more liberal, but there's still plenty of questions about what's allowed

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Under Homer's old sign ordinance, because these buildings at the Cannery Row Boardwalk are on one lot, the maximum square footage for all the buildings would have been 150 square feet divided among each shop. The new ordinance calculates the square footage per building, between 30 square feet and 150 square feet depending on the size of the building frontage.

Is it art? How many signs can you have? How big is the front of your building? And what is the front, anyway?

Since Homer's revised sign ordinance went into effect May 1, those are some of the questions city officials and businesses have been trying to answer.

Last week at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, planning technician Dotti Harness-Foster held the last of three sign code workshops to help business owners understand the new ordinance. Harness-Foster also has been walking the Homer Spit with her measuring tape, calculating building frontage and the maximum square footage allowed and advising business owners about what signs they can and cannot keep.

"We're working with people right now and making them aware of the regulations, and working with them in getting them in compliance," said Homer City Planner Rick Abboud, who's taken on part of Harness-Foster's other job of processing building permits so she can focus on educating people about the new sign ordinance.

The new ordinance liberalizes Homer's sign code. It was first considered by the Homer Advisory Planning Commission last summer, with hearings held in the fall.

The Homer City Council considered the ordinance and held public hearings in January, sent it back to the planning commission and the Economic Development Commission for more review, and then passed it in March.

One change allows temporary or sandwich board signs to be up every day, year-round.

Another change resolves an issue on the Homer Spit with boardwalk clusters. Under the old rule, the maximum square footage was calculated by the lot. For boardwalks like Cannery Row or Big Bear Boardwalk, that meant the maximum of 150 square feet of space had to be shared by all businesses — hardly enough to tell the name of a shop.

The revised code calculates square footage by the building. Businesses will get from 30- to 150-square-feet depending on the size of the main wall fronting the road — the same regulations for other businesses in town.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

The Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby headquarters on the Homer Spit falls under the sign ordinance and is allowed at least 30 square feet of signage.

"The sign ordinance is actually looser than it was before," Abboud said.

The sign code also applies to nonprofit groups like the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby headquarters building on the Spit. A small cabin like that would be allowed at least 30-square feet of signage, including signs around the lot.

Although the new law gives many Spit businesses more sign space, because the previous code hadn't been rigorously enforced, business owners have found out that because they never had sign permits, some of their signage might have to come down.

"There are a couple of business out there that have more signage than frontage," Abboud said. "That was the whole problem to begin with. The whole thing had gotten out of whack. ... They took full advantage of it."

North Country Charters, owned by Sean and Gerry Martin, is one business that discovered its current signage might exceed the allowed amount. Gerry Martin said she was told by planning she could have 30-square-feet of signage, although Harness-Foster said she hasn't yet measured the building. The Martins have been in their building for 30 years and were one of the first businesses to go in when the boardwalk was built in 1982.

Martin admitted she never got a sign permit.

"So, that's my bad," she said. "Nobody has ever come out to me and said, 'You need a sign permit.'"

Abboud said old signs can't be grandfathered in if they were never in compliance before the sign ordinance was changed.

"We're sorry nobody ever came out and told you that," he said of enforcing sign permits. "The emperor doesn't have any clothes on now and somebody finally told him."

At the workshop, Harness-Foster discussed aspects of the sign code like art. As with the Café Cups building on Pioneer Avenue, the large decorative cups don't count as signage since art is exempt. She showed a sign of Cottonwood Horse Park with decorative metal work of a horse at the top of the sign. That's exempt, but the lettering isn't.

That leads to some interesting debate about what counts as art in a sign, Abboud said.

"I would really love to bring that to a body," he said of getting a second opinion from the planning commission. "I have to make some of those calls. It's very difficult."

In making that decision, the planning department would look at if an image has a commercial message. A trademark wouldn't be art, for example.

"McDonald's arches are never going to be art," Abboud said.

Even the issue of frontage is debatable. Some Cannery Row buildings, for example, are at an angle to the road. Is it the smaller, gabled end or the longer, rectangular side that's frontage?

Abboud said such decisions have to follow the "red face" test — that is, can you make a decision without being embarrassed?

At the workshop, Harness-Foster pointed out the intent of the sign code is to make signs proportional to the building size and to other businesses, so that businesses don't get in sign wars where they keep building bigger and bigger signs.

She handed out a flier from the United States Sign Council on sign legibility and urged business owners to think of having clear, readable signs.

One sign-maker attending the workshop, Doug Field of Kenai Neon Signs, had a suggestion.

"Ask somebody who does this for a living," he said.

He advised against such things as electronic signs and banners.

While temporary signs now can be up year-round, they still have to be back 5 feet from lot lines, Harness-Foster said. Look at the Kenai Peninsula Borough geographic information systems website or air photos to see how lot lines relate to roads and sidewalks or hire a surveyor, she suggested. Only one sandwich board per lot is allowed at a time.

"Which brings up some challenges when you're in a bunch of businesses," Harness-Foster said.

She suggested businesses share a sign.

"Be creative. Be fair. Work it out," she said.

That might also sum up the attitude of the planning department. Abboud said he doesn't want to be hard-nosed about interpreting the ordinance and is willing to work with businesses.

"We're working with somebody who's working with us," he said.

Some Spit businesses have already taken down signs, Abboud said. That actually could lead to better visibility for Spit businesses, he noted.

"If they're all treated equally, maybe they'll get seen better," he said. "If they clutter them up, they'll get seen less."

Abboud said if businesses question an interpretation and want to challenge the law, he said the planning department is willing to write a decision that can be appealed. Decisions can be appealed to the Homer Advisory Planning Commission.

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