City signs soon to shrink

After years of putting it off, Port Orchard is finally going after non-compliant signs, forcing sign owners to bring their property into line with the City Council’s vision of how the city should look.

The city has had a sign ordinance for decades, but changes were rarely enforced. Most signs that don’t comply with the ordinance were just “grandfathered” in and tacitly ignored. However, when the City Council earlier this month approved a series of changes to its sign regulations, it sparked a movement to catalogue the city’s signs and slowly force owners to bring them up to code.

‘We’re not going to do it right off the bat,” said city code enforcement officer Kathy Woodside. “There will be a come-into-compliance phase.”

First off, she explained, the city staff will need to do an in-depth study of the city’s existing signs. After that, the signs will be prioritized and warning letters will be sent out to the owners. The owners will then have a prescribed amount of time to either ask for a variance or remodel their signs.

The amount of time allotted will be directly tied into the signs’ value, Woodside said. Signs valued at less than $1,000 will have one year to come up to code, while signs valued at more than $10,000 could have five years or more.

The biggest changes will likely come in Port Orchard’s mixed-use zone — downtown Bay Street.

Although the ordinance changes seriously overhaul sandwich board standards and the like, the changes approved for mixed-use areas are probably going to be the most costly to accommodate. In addition to new rules that restrict sign size to 50 square feet — down from 75 square feet — the ordinance also prohibits any stand-alone signs over six feet tall. Previously, signs were allowed to be up to 20 feet tall.

Similar changes were enacted in commercial zones, but maximum sign height was only lowered to 12 feet — down from 20 feet. Signs mounted onto buildings can go up to the roofline, regardless of building height.

One of those affected by the new sign requirements is City Councilman Bob Geiger. The sign for Geiger Pharmacy — one of his Bay Street businesses — is 18 feet tall and falls within the mixed-use zone.

Geiger, who sits on the committee that drafted the ordinance changes and voted for the updates, said he never got the impression his property would be affected by the new rules.

“(The sign’s) been up there for 26 years,” Geiger said. “Unless they want to buy it, they can’t change it.”

That may not be entirely true. City planner Rob Wenman, who oversees the code enforcement division, said the new rules apply to everyone — even those who previously enjoyed grandfather privileges. He said Geiger and others can request variances that would exempt them from the ordinance, but said such a request would have be reviewed and approved by the full council. In any case, Wenman said, the point of the ordinance is to finally take action on signs that have remained non-compliant for years.

“It’s city’s intent to bring that non-conforming usage into compliance,” he said.

Other changes call for stand-alone signs to be properly enclosed and landscaped at the base. Woodside said the purpose was primarily to camouflage the signs’ foundations and dress up the site a little. However, she said other concerns were involved as well.

“That basically is a safety precaution as well,” Woodside said. “If someone smacks into it, it won’t fall over onto them.”

A formal schedule for the study and compliance process has not yet been established. Woodside, however, said the city is determined to at least start reviewing its signs sometime in 2004. That means, at a minimum, no sign owner will face penalties for non-compliance until well into 2005.

So far, no one has raised objections to the changes or the city’s increased emphasis on compliance — although the city expects that will change as soon as compliance letters start going out.

“It’s amazing how controversial signage can be,” Wenman said.

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