Visalia City Council Votes 3-2 on New Sign Ordinance

After 38 years Visalia has new a new sign ordinance. At the June 6 city council meeting, the vote was three to two in favor, with council members Amy Shuklian and Greg Collins voting no. While Shuklian and Collins voted no they were mostly satisfied with new sign ordinance. Updating Visalia’s sign ordinance has been a topic of discussion at retreats and city council meetings since before 2011.

The purpose of the ordinance is to regulate the size, number and placement of signs. The ordinance regulates all signs, whether they may be for businesses, garage sales, new subdivisions, or mobile or temporary signs such as those used during elections or special events. Since a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, a sign cannot be prohibited based on its content.

Mayor Steve Nelson was very happy with the final product but said it comes down to enforcement. Tracy Robertshaw, Neighborhood Preservation Manager, told the city council that the new sign ordinance was in fact enforceable. For years, many complaints were left unresolved because parts of the old ordinance were not enforceable, such as temporary banners.

“The previous ordinance was too ambiguous, making enforcement difficult. The new ordinance is very clear about how banners are to be used,” said Robertshaw. “Our office will first work on educating the community and business owners about the new sign ordinance. We will then be sending courtesy notices to those that are still out of compliance.”

Robertshaw added that most people comply with the courtesy notice but she anticipates a few people receiving fines.

The last time the sign ordinance was updated was in 1978.

A draft ordinance was completed in May of 2015. At that time, Visalia City Planner Josh McDonnell said that the only constant in writing a sign ordinance was dissent. Because there exists no federal or state regulations, each city is free to write their own rules, and what is reasonable or attractive to one person is an eyesore to another.

In the summer of 2015 a final draft of the sign ordinance was ready for a vote by Visalia City Council when a United States Supreme Court ruling changed everything. The decision was Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, and stated that content could not be considered when adopting a sign ordinance. To ban a sign solely because of its message was ruled to be a violation of free speech. That means that cities could no longer restrict signs that advertised alcohol and cigarettes, and the category of “political signs” disappeared over night.

The Supreme Court ruling originated out of a dispute between the Good News Community Church and the city of Gilbert, Arizona. The church would advertise its services on signs throughout the town but were banned by that city’s sign ordinance. The Untied States Supreme court ruled 9-0 that the City of Gilbert had violated the church’s first amendment rights of freedom of speech.

After the Supreme Court decision, Visalia attorney Ken Richardson went line by line and adapted Visalia’s document to the new ruling. The newly revised draft was debated at last week’s Visalia City Council meeting.

While the new ordinance was seen as workable by the business community, Chamber of Commerce and the council, there were aspects of it that were contested.

Seen as a quality of life issue by the council members, a sign ordinance is meant to keep a city from assaulting a visitor’s or resident’s senses with clutter. The difficulty of deciding between what is trashy, and what is acceptable and necessary for businesses to draw in customers, is why the ordinance has been discussed on and off by the council for more than five years.

Bill Balsley, a Visalia resident, protested the fact that every business had the right to one A-frame billboard. He brought up the fact that there are underground businesses and those found on upper floors. Councilmember Warren Gubler brought up that Montgomery Square has 30 business, most of whom do not have street frontage.

“We have the potential for 500 A-frame signs just in downtown,” said Balsley.

Richardson confirmed that all those businesses have a right to one A-frame. He also brought up the fact that the old ordinance did not forbid those signs and that past behavior could be predictor in the future. Richardson did not anticipate trouble with the number of signs, and if there were, the city could revisit the issue.

Brought back as legal in Richardson’s update were mascots. In the 2015 version, individuals dressed up as a crow to sell insurance or the Statue of Liberty to advertise accounting services at tax time were deemed illegal. In the current version mascots themselves are legal but ironically they cannot be holding any signs.

Collins commented that he counted 35 monument signs on Mooney Boulevard but that overall the main commercial thorough fare looked pretty good. What Collins didn’t like were the blimps and balloons put up in new subdivisions to advertise homes for sale, the many banners and feather signs, and the older signs that had been grandfathered into the new ordinance.

“Feather signs are the worst thing ever,” said Shuklian, adding that she would give in on the banners if Visalia could get rid of all the feather signs.

Richardson said that the feather banners need to be taken down at night, have to be in good condition and need to be restrained in high wind. He added that a business can only have one feather banner or lawn sign per 16 square feet of property. That restriction would make it impossible to have a long line of feather banners that we see today on Mooney Boulevard and at the automobile dealerships.

Councilmember Bob Link wanted to thank Richardson for all of his work in rewriting the ordinance after the Supreme Court ruling and said that he supported the ordinance as is. Gubler agreed, saying that the council could reconsider parts of the ordinance if problems arise. Nelson said that his support of the ordinance has not wavered from the beginning but agreed about the feather signs.

“You could nitpick this document to death and then have to start all over,” he said. “We need to keep our eye on the ball and tweak it if necessary.”

The second reading of the ordinance will be done at the July 20 city council meeting before the new rules will take effect.

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