When the Town Council met last night, Tuesday, Feb. 16, a discussion related to potential changes to sign regulations in the Zoning Ordinance continued. As of this writing, it was not known how that discussion transpired. However, it is a discussion that has played out over the three decades the town has been incorporated without clear resolution.
In the 1990s, drivers traveling Saguaro Blvd. would encounter up to two dozen portable A-frame signs in the stretch between Desert Vista and Colony Drive. There were a lot of businesses that wanted motorists to know they were hidden back along side streets off Saguaro in that area.
This situation generated numerous complaints about clutter and ugly signs, so much so that in November of 2003, the council voted for an outright ban of the A-frame signs. The ban did not take effect until January 2006, giving businesses more than two years to consider and implement other options.
After the ban went into effect some members of the business community were not happy. One businessperson is quoted in The Times stating, “We were railroaded into the staff agenda, and they wouldn’t listen to what the business owners had to say.”
Richard Turner, Planning and Zoning Administrator in 2006, sent a letter to business owners explaining that the ban was the result of a “long, intense process that involved residents, representatives of the business community and staff.
“The committee assigned to complete this task had to balance issues of business identification with community appearance.”
Turner was not on staff during the review that led to the 2003 changes.
Among the recommendations the committee came up with at that time were to use town directional signs to identify business areas within the community, signs that include block numbers for the main streets in Fountain Hills and a provision that allows businesses within an identified area to install monument signs identifying several businesses at the location. Some of these options were implemented and remain in place today.
The option for monument signs is still in the ordinance but has not been used to any extent. It is a process that requires significant cooperation between business owners and property owners and can be an expensive investment.
By the middle of 2008, the Chamber of Commerce had organized a committee to review sign regulations with a goal toward making recommendations to the council. However, just before adjourning for the summer, council members were anxious to do something to grant some relief to businesses that often struggle through the hot summer.
Staff, however, urged patience, noting that amending the Zoning Ordinance is a complicated process with legal parameters that take time.
Kate Zanon, who was interim town manager at this time, told the council staff could not grant a spur of the moment zoning change to allow A-frame signs. However, she did note the Code Enforcement Division had priorities that related to health and safety issues, not necessarily sign code enforcement.
Staff continued working into early fall on a proposal to present to the Town Council. Restoration of A-frames was part of the plan but included a “sunset clause,” which required the council to review the temporary sign situation for aesthetics and adherence to placement regulations as well as consider complaints. The sunset provision allowed for two years before the council had to renew it.
The sunset clause remained in the ordinance to the most recent expiration date of Dec. 31, 2020, but the council did not take up a measure to renew it. Technically, A-frame signs are banned at this time. However, Development Services Director John Wesley said staff has no plans to enforce a ban while updated regulations are under consideration.
Garage sale signs are another contentious point as related to temporary signs in town. While people are not generally deterred from placing their signs as they wish, there are regulations related to such signs.
The criteria include size and placement. They are not to be attached to light or sign poles or set out on cardboard boxes. There is also a limit to the number of signs permitted to advertise a garage sale.
At one time in the past the town did have a system where individuals wanting to hold a garage sale could go to the town to pick up a specific sign board and stand to advertise their sale. It was designed to allow changes on the sign for address and time. It also added uniformity to the signs.
At the time the town staff included the Marshal’s Department, which administered the program. With staff cuts the sign distribution by the town was eliminated with personnel.
Today, the garage sale sign requirements remain in place and a code enforcement officer is on duty on weekends to police the regulations.
Over the years the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed cases involving regulations related to signs. The most recent decision is from 2015 in Reed v Town of Gilbert (Arizona).
The 2015 ruling makes clear that jurisdictions may not base any regulations on sign content, and all rules must be applied consistently across the board. This can make writing legislation a bit of a challenge when trying to balance the sign plans of small business, real estate sales, organizations and even churches (the subject of the Reed case). There are different needs and goals for all different types of organizations, but all must be treated evenly when it comes to regulation.
In another situation, the Arizona State Legislature has pre-empted local regulation of political signs, making it near impossible for cities and towns to control the sign landscape during an election year.
On Tuesday, the council reviewed some of the proposed changes Wesley developed following an earlier discussion in January. The Times will have a full report on the latest in the Feb. 24 print edition.