Two years on, the county’s updated sign ordinance appears to be heading into the home stretch. County supervisors heard the latest state of the sign ordinance during their July 22 meeting in a presentation by the Community Development Agency’s Long-Range Planning Division. The official agenda language noted that the recommendation by staff was for supervisors to “review revisions made to the draft Sign Ordinance.” The recommendations also included some revisions to the applicable sections of the county’s general plan and to authorize a Resolution of Intention to amend the current sign ordinance.
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The latter clears the way for county staff to begin preparing “all necessary documentation and environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act.” Protecting “the county’s visual character and scenic landscapes/viewsheds in designated scenic corridors” is the board’s goal, according to the meeting documents. In addition, the ordinance must conform to certain state and federal laws.
Principal Planner Shawna Purvines reviewed the history of the project, which began in August 2012 when the board directed staff to contract for consultants to prepare a sign ordinance amendment and related EIR. The first version of the ordinance was presented as a Public Review Draft in June 2013. That initiated a 60-day period of review that netted responses from 42 individuals and seven local agencies, Purvines noted. Public and agency comments were submitted, considered and some were later incorporated into the draft ordinance along with input from Pacific Municipal Consultants and County Counsel. The Draft Sign Ordinance Update was released July 8 for another 60-day public review period. That process will again collect public and agency comments that might be included in the “final draft Sign Ordinance.” The final draft and a final Environmental Impact Report are expected to go to the board for approval in January, according to the agenda documents.
Balancing private property rights, First Amendment rights to free speech, public safety and welfare, history, tradition and commerce has prompted a number of revisions to the draft ordinance clarifying that signage needs in urban areas will be addressed separately from those in rural areas. The ordinance further considers “Highway-Oriented” signs to apply only to U.S. Highway 50 and not state routes 49 or 193. Allowance for custom sizes or shapes is granted with a “deviation (factor) of up to 20 percent of development standards.”
Separate sections have been added to the ordinance to deal with signs on county property; “Community Sign Programs which include industry association signs found primarily in rural areas,” such as directions to Apple Hill vendors and the south county wineries. The ordinance spells out the methodology whereby the county may remove and relocate legal billboards from one area to another. An example could be removing a billboard that is determined to interrupt a scenic view. In the recent past, some residents and county officials have said billboards on Highway 50 near Shingle Springs obstruct the panoramic view of the mountains.
While the county has the authority to take a sign by eminent domain proceedings, including fair compensation to the owner, supervisors have repeatedly expressed unwillingness to use that process with respect to other situations. Other options include negotiating a relocation of the sign from a “sensitive” area to a less sensitive one, which could also be on county-owned land. The ordinance describes “amortization” as a way to eliminate particular billboards. That process allows the owner to retain or recoup the investment for a specified period of time (the ordinance provides for seven years, although sign industry representatives have asked for a 15-year amortization period). Another revision advises the county to set a firm date to begin a “survey” for the eventual “abatement” of illegal or non-conforming signs.
The ordinance regulates the “dwell time” of digital signs. That is the length of time a particular image may appear before changing to another image, Purvines explained. She said the standard in other jurisdictions is between six and nine seconds and the ordinance recommends eight.
Supervisors raised a complicated issue regarding signs on “historic routes” or in areas with “historic viewsheds.” Chairman Norma Santiago asked, “We have historic routes, so can we redesignate them as scenic routes?” (The ordinance governs signage on scenic routes.)
“We need to remove signs from historic routes and change (the routes) to scenic corridors,” Santiago advised, but noted that to date, the county has not addressed the issue. “We’re just starting the environmental review, and we will follow the same process,” she said.
What is or is not a historic route remains a question with an elusive answer. District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs said, “People call me all the time and tell me what are historic routes,” and reminded the board of a U.S. Forest Service proposal earlier this year to designate the Rubicon Trail as a historic route under federal guidelines. “We met violent opposition (to the proposal) over the Rubicon Trail,” Briggs said. At the time many residents and trail users expressed fear that their access to the trail could be severely limited by the federal government if it were to be classified as a historic route.
Audience member Kris Payne asked, “What constitutes a historic route?” No one had an answer. Payne is president of the Historical Society and chairman of the county’s Charter Review Committee.
Patti Chelseth of Shingle Springs objected to a clause in the ordinance that says, “anything not expressly permitted by ordinance is forbidden.” She described the ordinance as a representative of “the battle between government and those who just want to be left alone.”
Another speaker asked for more time for the public to review the ordinance, suggesting that it had “serious omissions” and saying digital signs “are not good for the county.”
County Farm Bureau director Valerie Zentner thanked the staff and consultants for clearly separating the issue of urban and rural signage and told the board not “to take (away) commercial use of signs in rural areas” and to allow for the addition of signs related to home occupations.
Art versus commerce is another issue without clear guidelines. Suggestions included treating murals on private property as commercial and murals on public property as art. As examples, Purvines showed slides of the Rainbow Orchards barn-sized mural in Camino and the side of the Poor Red’s building in El Dorado. A possible solution is to exclude murals from the sign ordinance, as noted in the slide presentation.
Pollock Pines resident Fran Duchamp responded with concern regarding any attempt to regulate artistic signage. Citing Hitler’s condemnation of certain art, Duchamp said, “Don’t give up our rights,” and added, “So many rules. When did we come to so many rules?”
Additional revisions include process-related and user-friendly sections such as “a table listing sign permit requirements, for various sign types … added to the permitting section.” A “reformatted” version of development standards tables for signs was included for clarity and ease of use, while “standards for permanent on-site signs in urban and rural areas have been split into separate tables.”
Public jurisdictions are extremely limited in their ability to regulate sign”content,” which could deny the public’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Again asking rhetorically, Santiago said, “A billboard is expression, so how do we remove it?”
Earlier in the presentation, District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco assured that the board was “not adopting or imposing (an ordinance) to not let people speak.” However, one suggested revision would put some limitations on the number of signs advertising alcohol or tobacco.
Mikulaco described a scenario in which an individual might wear a sandwich board sign and walk around advertising something (in the county’s unincorporated areas). Would that be allowed under the ordinance’s section regarding “mobile signs,” he asked Purvines. Mikulaco gasped in frustration when Purvines answered, “No.”
Materials related to the Draft Sign Ordinance can be viewed on the county Website on the Board of Supervisors agenda of July 22, 2014 — Agenda item 30 “meeting details.”
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.