Council weighs signage changes
Sign and structure erection in the city’s public right of way was the focus of a joint Marietta City Council committee Wednesday.
Planning, Zoning, Annexation and Housing Committee Chairman Geoff Schenkel combined with Streets Committee Chairwoman Susan Boyer to address safety, liability and criminal concerns currently conflicting within city building and zoning codes and past variance-granting practices.
The pair, with the support of Council members Bill Gossett, Bill Farnsworth, Cassidi Shoaf and Mike McCauley, are now requesting drafted legislation from the city law director, without including aesthetic and design elements in their proposed outline.
The group intends to:
1. Eliminate the criminal penalty assigning a misdemeanor to any resident, business owner or tenant which erects a sign or other structure that hangs over or stands within the public right of way. Right of way varies throughout the municipality, often extending from the center of a city street past any existing tree lawn and city sidewalk, sometimes landing flush against a private building or on the front porch of residences.
2. Grandfather existing sign structures currently built within the city right of way that are not deemed a current risk to public health and safety.
3. Require council approval for any new construction of a sign, light or other structure built above or in the city right of way.
4. Limit the intensity of light and speed of change in digital signs and message boards within city limits.
At present, the building code adopted by past legislators within the city makes the placement of any sign in the city public right of way a prosecutable offense.
Councilwoman Boyer, a retired Washington County Common Pleas Judge, said Wednesday this code starkly conflicts with any variance granted to erect a business sign on tree lawns throughout the municipality.
Last year, when variance requests over zoning code restrictions for right of way signs came before the legislative body, this conflict raised a flag for Boyer.
“You can’t grant permission for somebody to commit a criminal offense,” Boyer explained Wednesday.
But in practice, this has not been enforced.
Schenkel and McCauley noted that with current regulations, even local real estate agents and private homeowners placing a “for sale” sign in the tree lawn could be found guilty of a minor misdemeanor.
“But if we wanted to be jerks, that’s what the letter of the law is saying,” Schenkel added.
Gossett did question whether removing all penalties is wise, asking both how changes to sign regulation and right of way regulation would be enforced moving forward.
McCauley explained that when he served the city as a police officer, he would have simply removed obstructions from sidewalks if they could be deemed a public safety risk.
“I’d take the sign and you could pick it up at the police department,” he smiled.
Both Gossett and Schenkel said they would need to review appropriate civil penalties further to attach to changes in regulation.
Through various stages of development of commercial and private businesses in Marietta, restrictions have varied on types of structures that are deemed permissible over city sidewalks and roads.
As restrictions have tightened, a primary driver for inclusion in building codes has been the protection of public safety, said both Schenkel and Boyer.
But one fallout from these restrictions is a diminished opportunity for creativity and a business’s options to draw both pedestrian and motorist attention to a storefront.
Copperleaf Design is one such business the pair offered as a recent example of unintended negative consequence.
All council members present agreed that a better interpretation of change to existing signage structure considers not only the face of a sign but also poles or other such construction supporting the business’s presence.
In the regulation of new structures in or above right of way, the committees intend to put the responsibility and, ultimately, liability in the event of structural failure, on the business or individual adding the asset to a building.
The legislators present agreed to require minimum height clearances but were not unanimous in demanding an engineer’s certificate on all proposed additions over a right of way.
Both Farnsworth and Shoaf questioned the impact of requiring a professional engineer’s signature on plans for smaller, lighter signs potentially becoming cost-prohibitive for small businesses.
But the requirement for council approval on all requested variances to erect new structures on or above city right of way was unanimous Wednesday.
Also unanimously supported Wednesday was the idea to limit both the brightness of illuminated signs within the city –addressing potential motorist safety hazards associated with both the digital advertising message board adhered to the Lafayette Hotel’s Front Street facade and with Marietta College’s digital signs over downtown athletic fields.
Drafted legislation will next be requested by the committee chairs to City Law Director Paul Bertram.
Council committees are next scheduled to meet today between 2:30 p.m. and at least 6:30 p.m. for various topics outlined on the city website.