Revising the temporary sign  ordinance — a process that has gone on for at least a year — is a lot like the guest who came to dinner and stayed too long. You keep dropping hints hoping he will leave, but he never gets up to go.

Last week it looked as if everything was settled on a revised temporary sign ordinance. All that remained was passing the second and third readings. But … Hey!  Not so fast!

"I'd make a snide remark, but they fooled me last week, too"
“I’d make a snide remark, but they fooled me last week, too.”

Mayor Shane McFarland read the title of the ordinance for a second reading Thursday night, and things went downhill from there.

If you’ve been following this soap opera, the council appeared to agree  last week that merchants may do whatever they want with string lighting on their windows. But in an effort to write this noble sentiment into law, they produced the opposite result.

How an action to delete regulation misfired

Last week Councilman Eddie Smotherman moved that language related to string lighting be stricken from the ordinance revision. His apparent intent with the deletion was that the city would no longer regulate string lighting under the sign ordinance.

What he wound up deleting was language liberalizing the current rules. At present, the city only allows string lighting of any color between Nov. 15th and January 15th. The section stricken would have permited clear or white lighting the year round and kept the Nov. 15th to January 15th limit only on colored lighting.

Once Smotherman’s motion passed on first reading last week, the effect was no change in the current rules. That means the Nov. 15-Jan 15  limit on all string lighting remains in place.  Score one for the visiting team.

String lighting whenever and wherever

“I thought I heard …  an expectation that (with the deleted language)  string lighting would be allowed everywhere but that would not be the case,” Assistant City Attorney David Ives said. “I want to be clear about what the council wishes on this,.”

Councilman Bill Shacklett, who thought he had won at least a partial victory last week, saw his gains slip away.

“My intent was that string lighting not be restricted — that it would be allowed whenever and wherever,” he said.

LaLance’s idea of limiing lighting intensity is stillborn

Now that the lighting can of worms had been reopened, Councilman Rick LaLance again raised his proposal to put a measurable limit on string lighting. That is something the proposed ordinance revision never addressed. LaLance suggested language that would follow the city’s  rules for outline lighting on buildings. The formula for outline lighting is three linear feet of lighting are allowed  for every foot of street frontage a building has. LaLance’s proposal had a nice symmetry, but it didn’t resonate with other members of the council.

On all sign issues, Shacklett, who owns a photography business, argued that if you haven’t walked in a businessman’s shoes you really can’t understand his concerns over his right to advertise (within limits) his business. Shacklett agrees that signs and lighting on the outside of a window can be regulated, but businessmen should be free of most rules on advertising inside their buildings.

"A sign by any other name ...:
“A sign by any other name …:

Ives suggested that the best way to deregulate striing lighting is to change the definition that makes such lighting a sign. The rationale behind the definition is that lighting and signs perform the same function — calling attention to a business.  Change the definition, Ives said,  and string lighting would be largely unregulated. It just couldn’t prove a safety hazard by flashing or changing colors.

LaLance said he could never accept a motion that removed all regulation of string lighting.

Shacklett complained that the council is wrong in imposing harsh rules on the way small businessmen publicize their businesses because of a few people who have gone overboard with lighting.

“We do that every day,” said LaLance,  meaning the city often puts restrictions on what people can and can’t do. Mayor Shane McFarland added that many ordinances on the books were written to address extreme cases.

"he 800 pound gorilla on the roof."
“The 800 pound gorilla on the roof.”

The mayor noted that the council got a little lax a few years ago and wound up with a 30-foot purple gorilla on the roof of one building in the center of town.

On this issue, the councilmen decided to fix last week’s faux pas by doing nothing. They left the deletion of the string lighting language in place and passed the rest of the ordinance on second reading. Next, they directed staff members to come back with a solution on string lighting. The practical effect of what the council did is nil, since we are in the 60-day period right now when string lighting is allowed.

The irony of the whole thing is that a shop owner can do whatever he wants with string lighting or signs if he hangs them from the ceiling or puts them on an easel and does not attach them to his window. Once they touch the window the regulatory alarms go off.

“Don’t do what we let you do if you keep it a half inch off the window.”

To Shacklett, it made no sense to regulate lighting around a window frame if it is inside a person’s business. It seemed even sillier to him that the city doesn’t regulate lighting framing a window if it isn’t attached to the window frame or the glass.

The third issue involved revised rules on the amount of window space temporary signs can occupy. The current rules limit signs to no more than 15% of any window. The change  was an attempt to liberalize the rules by saying a shop owner could fill 25% of his total front window area with signs, arranging them any way he wants. He could, for example, cover one of four windows completely and leave the others alone or cover 25% of each. Shacklett argued in vain for a 50% coverage limit.

Safety issue seems bogus since you can block off a window with a partition

"This story makes good bathroom reading."
“This story makes good bathroom reading.”

Shacklett said the original reason given for limiting sign area was safety. It is better for a shop owner to see potential danger coming at him through the window and for first responders to see what is happening inside a store before they go in. Yet, a store owner is free to block his window completely with  a partition and put displays in the window as many of the New York department stores do.

The 25% limit remained. Shacklett lost his battle on all fronts, but Mayor McFarland went out of his way to praise Shacklett for his clear thinking and integrity,

The ordinance will take effect — without any change from the current string lights rules — six months after it passes on a third reading. That would make it some time in June. What finally emerges from another crack at the planners drawing board on string lighting is anybody’s guess.

And so closes Chapter XII, Book Six of the continuing saga of the city’s sign ordinance.